Parenting and the F word: favoritism

Claire McCarthyAs if there weren’t enough for moms to feel worried and guilty about, there’s an article in USAToday.com saying that children who felt like their mother favored a sibling over them can have emotional problems well into adulthood.

Yikes.

I love each one of my five kids desperately—whether or not each knows that on a day-to-day basis is an open question. With full-time jobs, and the household chores involved in raising five kids, my husband and I are lucky if we get to pee, let alone spend quality time with each child every day.

And while we love each child, the 4-year-old gets the most physical attention since Liam can’t yet take care of himself—and the 17-year-old, Zack, gets attention since his competitive swimming takes him (and me) all over New England. Oh, and we spent all fall working on college applications with him. Maybe I should just start saving up for therapy for the other three now.

Joking aside, this can be a real issue in many families. What makes it particularly tough is that it’s all about perceptions. You may indeed love each of your children equally, but that doesn’t guarantee that your children will see it that way. And to a child, even a little bit of extra time or a few extra smiles given to a sibling can feel like favoritism. So what’s a parent to do? Here are some suggestions I use with parents in my practice:

Be honest with yourself. Do an inventory of your feelings—and your actions. Let’s face it: some kids are easier to love. The one who is a good student, and helps out around the house, is likely to get more positive attention than the confrontational one who lies about finishing her homework and never picks up after herself. Temperament can play into it as well; you may simply get along more easily with one child than another. But both are your children. I don’t have any easy solutions to the problem, but being aware of it is the only place to start. If, when you do this inventory, you find you have strong negative feelings toward one of your children,  talk to your pediatrician about finding a therapist to help both you and your child deal with these feelings.

Establish a culture of fairness. Make a calendar of chores; rotate the ones that are less pleasant. Set up rotations too for things that kids tend to fight over, like favored seating in the car or on the couch, or who picks the TV show or the music. Have ground rules for how people treat each other (no name-calling, respecting each other’s property, taking turns with toys, etc). It will help reassure your children that everyone’s equal in the family.

Touch base with each child every day. It may not be much some days, but something as simple as curling up in bed for a few minutes at bedtime for snuggling, or sitting down next to your teenager on the couch while they do what they can to ignore you, can make a difference. Ask about their day (specific questions work better than general ones), admire schoolwork and artwork, give hugs.

Explain. It’s a simple truth that some kids in the family demand more time and energy than others, because of physical or emotional needs. Explain this to the others (be specific—“Joe is going through a really hard time at school right now, and I need to help him with his homework every night” works better than “Joe needs me more.”) The others might not understand, but it’s worth a shot, especially if you can point to a time when you gave them more attention.

Listen. Kids decide what makes them feel valued, not you. I devote a lot of time and energy to my 12-year-old, Elsa. So I was confused when Elsa said I didn’t pay enough attention to her and that I favored her 9-year-old sister, Natasha. It was especially confusing because I felt like I was hardly paying any attention to Natasha—she  is so independent and capable that she’s the one I’m most likely to forget about. It took me a while to understand that since much of the time with Elsa was spent arguing or struggling with her over tough homework problems, it actually counted as a negative in her attention bookkeeping. She wanted positive attention—like the brief positive attention Natasha gets. Ask your child what it is he needs or wants from you; the answers may surprise you.

Remember that things can even up over time. To everything there is a season, and parenthood is no different. There will be times in your parenting when one child swallows up all the time—or when you don’t have any time for anyone. But you don’t have to get it all right, or make it all come out even, every day. You need find ways to show that you love each child every day, but you’re allowed to parent them differently at different times and stages of their lives. That’s how life works. Take a deep breath, and be gentle with yourself.

How have you divided your attention between your children? What strategies work in your family for helping each child feel like they’re getting enough – and the right kind – of your attention?

4 thoughts on “Parenting and the F word: favoritism

  1. My children are all adults now. When they were young I would try to spend individual time with each of them by taking them out on a particular night of the week. They could choose how we would spend the time together. I really enjoyed this and I believe they did as well; however, it did not change the fact that two of them claimed that the other children were favored. Reading your article helped me to understand that, although they perceived the situation that way, I am not guilty. I have had difficulty with this issue for many years. Thanks

  2. Dr. McCarthy, I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this topic for families with special needs children. I have 4 children and my oldest, an 11-year-old son, has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychosis, narcisism, ODD, ADHD, and most recently is being evaluated for Asperger syndrome. As you know, the symptoms of the first list of diagnoses and Asperger are very similar.

    As you said, some are easier to get along with than others. One of my daughters is a great student, a hard worker, always wants to be a big help, and she is a child that is very easy to love. Our other 2 daughters are somewhere in the middle, but they are all pretty easy to be around. With our son, it is a constant struggle. He feels that we do not love him as much because he requires so much more correction than our daughter’s do. He has no friends, whereas our daughters are a very kind hearted and people love them and seek out their friendships. This is something we have discussed with his counselor and psychiatrist on many occasions, but have never found a solution. No matter what one-on-one time we give him, it is never enough. He always wants more and no matter what we give, he pouts when it isn’t enough.

    It breaks my heart that he feels he is not loved as much as his sisters and that he is of less worth than they are, but at the same time the fact is that he does require correction (albeit in a positive manner). If his sisters have an accomplishment that we celebrate, he is hurt by that, even if he had an accomplishment the week before that we also celebrated.

    I want him to feel the warmth and love that everyone else does in our home. I know that other families with special children must deal with this issue too, but hearing your thoughts on it would be so wonderful!

  3. to ArmyWifeMT-

    It’s so hard, as you know only too well, when because of a condition or a circumstance one child ends up getting a lot of negative attention (even when that negative attention is given as positively as possible). Your son’s resentment and anger is not only understandable, it’s inevitable.

    You may have tried this already, but I wonder if you might try to build in daily rituals of positive attention, like a hug every morning, an after-school debrief with a positive spin (“Tell me the best part of your day today,” for example), some time in front of a favorite show in the evenings. If these rituals are independent of other stuff going on, they’ll happen no matter what not-so-great things he might do that day, and might work toward building some positive attention capital.

    Are there activities that he enjoys and is good at? Anything you can do to encourage those activities would be great—even better if there are ways for him to interact with other kids who enjoy those activities too.

    Don’t stop celebrating and appreciating your other children, even if it makes your son pout. They are your children too, and deserve your love every bit as much. And your son, as hard as it may be for him, needs to understand that too.

    You can’t fix this situation—all you can do it stick with it, keep trying, keep looking for ways to make his life (and yours) better. It sounds like that’s exactly what you are doing, and I commend you for that; you are good parents.

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