Parental favoritism can feel like a bit of a taboo topic to even acknowledge quietly to oneself—let alone talk about. However, parental favoritism is not uncommon: recent studies have shown that 40 percent of Americans raised with siblings believe their parents had a favorite child. And, as is true with most difficult-to-discuss topics, there is an important conversation to have here.
Parental favoritism, intentional or not, can manifest in various ways, such as providing one child with more affection, attention, privileges, or support or, alternatively, withholding these from the others. Research has found that many factors—including birth order and parent self-concept—contribute to forming this dynamic, the effects of which are also complex and varied. So, let’s delve in:
One of the most common contributing factors to parental favoritism is birth order. Unsurprisingly, youngest and oldest children most frequently report that they believe they were their parents’ favorite child, respectively, suggesting parents commonly favor first- and last-born children. Middle children are the least likely to report feeling like they were the favorite child.
For example, parents may form a unique bond with the child that made them parents or admire them for paving the way for their younger siblings. On the other hand, parents may favor the youngest children as the “babies” of the family and the child through which they will be experiencing many “lasts” (e.g., last first words, last first day of kindergarten, last high school graduation, etc.). Parents also spend the most one-on-one time with their first- and last-born child, either before other children are born or after all their other children have already moved out of the family home. Generally speaking, first-born children receive the most privileges, while the last-born children tend to receive the most affection.
Parents’ self-concepts also influence parental favoritism: their beliefs about themselves, their likes and dislikes, their values, how they relate to those around them, and so on. As in any relationship, forming a close and positive bond with someone is made easier when one can relate to, and therefore empathize with, the other: it becomes easier to find common ground, share and support personal pursuits, align on opinions, and see one another’s perspective. Unfortunately, this ease of connection can create a bias towards or partiality for one child over others and lead to preferential treatment.
Child’s Personality and Temperament
A child’s personality and temperament will also contribute to patterns of favoritism. Parents often favor amiable, agreeable, and affectionate children over children with difficulty regulating emotions or following rules. Unfortunately, perceived parental favoritism is likely to exacerbate and perpetuate these issues.
Effects of Parental Favoritism
It likely comes as no surprise that the effects of parental favoritism on children are not good. For both the unfavored and favored children, perceived parental favoritism will probably have a short- and long-term impact on a child’s self-esteem, mental health, relationships with others, and success.
Children learn about the world and how they fit into it, first through their relationships with their parents and second through how their parents help them navigate various life circumstances. With the appropriate support, affection, guidance, and a foundation of unconditional love, children develop a strong sense of self-worth and belief in themselves. They are provided a positive example to base future interpersonal relationships on. (For more on this, check out the blog “So What Was Your Childhood Like?”)
For children who feel unfavored by their parents compared to a sibling, rates of depression and feelings of loneliness rise. Unfavored children also report less willingness to look to their parents for emotional support and lower self-esteem.
On the other hand, children who feel favored may feel more pressure to succeed, leading to feelings of stress. Favored children may also face feelings of resentment from their siblings, which they may feel confused by or powerless to change.
Parental favoritism often affects children into their adulthood. Consider for a moment the importance of a child feeling fully secure in their relationship with their parents: children who feel loved unconditionally and supported by their parents are less likely to be deterred by mistakes, moments of failure, or rejection by others. Conversely, these children are more confident in trying new things and more likely to challenge themselves to learn new skills. Children who feel secure in their relationships with their parents are more likely to develop healthier relationships with friends and significant others.
As such, adults who felt their parents favored one of their siblings over them in childhood are more likely to have lower levels of self-esteem, less success, and less stable relationships later in life. Parental favoritism can also place a long-term strain on sibling relationships, with siblings who perceived their parents to have a favorite child reporting to have a less close relationship with their siblings in adulthood than children who do not report perceiving their parents to have a favorite child; this pattern has been shown to replicate itself in an adult child’s relationship with their parents.
Parental favoritism can be a confusing and painful thing for children with siblings to experience, and often deeply influences one’s self-concept and how they move through the world. Whether it be limiting self-beliefs, low self-esteem, or difficulty developing close and meaningful relationships—the impacts of feeling unfavored by one or both parents can be challenging to navigate and work through. As always, I encourage anyone seeking support in this journey to reach out to a licensed mental health professional who can help explore these experiences and their impacts and push past any limitations you feel may be holding you back from living a fulfilling, authentic life.