Avoid playing favourites

29 June 2014

Many parents do feel closer to one child – here’s why it happens, what it can do to your children and how to fix it.

Asanda Ngwenya* grew up in a home in which her mother shamelessly favoured her three brothers. For this reason she never dreamt she’d become one of those moms. But today 37-year-old Asanda openly admits that she’s finding it very hard to share her love equallybetween her children. “It hurts me to say it but I am fonder of my son, Sifiso* (5), than I am of my thirteen-year-old daughter, Keabetswe*,” she confesses.

Many parents would never admit they have a favourite child while others reject the idea and think it couldn’t happen. But if you over-indulge, defend, spoil and idolise one of your children more than the others, you are guilty of favouritism, says Midrand clinical psychologist Nthabiseng Mabena.

Nthabiseng and other experts agree that favouritism is far more common than we think and many parents do feel closer to one child. As a result they feel sad and guilty as they wonder how they can love one of their offspring more than the others.

Asanda believes she fusses over her son more than her daughter because he’s younger and needs a lot of attention.

“Keabetswe, on the other hand, is becoming a young lady and as a result our relationship can be stressful and strained.”

On top of being a difficult teenager, her daughter is reluctant to do her household chores and isn’t a loving child. “I feel less stressed when I deal with Sifiso as I have to make less effort with him, which makes me want to spend more time with him,” asanda says.

However, Asanda is concerned this isn’t simply a phase and still tries to give Keabetswe attention and love. She’s worried about the effect it will have on her in the future, precisely because her own mother favoured her brothers. As a result she’s very grateful that her husband gives both children equal amounts of attention.

Asanda isn’t the only parent dealing with the problem of favouritism. Recent research shows 16 per cent of mothers prefer one child to the others, often not knowing the reason.

What are the effects of favouritism?

Some experts believe favouritism is entirely natural and say parents shouldn’t feel bad about having a favourite child, while others feel it’s a problem that could affect children psychologically and needs to be dealt with carefully.

S’mangele Mayisela, a Joburg educational psychologist says favouritism damages both favoured and unfavoured children emotionally. “In both cases, the children involved are likely to have feelings of frustration, anger and depression and they could even develop behavioural problems in the future,”  she warns.

S’mangele says children who are not favoured will lack selfesteem, may feel unwanted and rejected and may develop an inferiority complex. They will also become jealous and resentful of the favoured sibling.

“Some children may become angry and aggressive while others will do whatever it takes to get their parents’ attention – whereas some might excel at school or sport, others might turn to petty crime.”

Nthabiseng says children who are the apple of their parents’ eye could also feel frustrated because the situation is unrealistic. “While your child has your undivided attention at home, he will realise he’s not king of the castle at school,” she explains.

Favoured children often find it hard to follow rules and instructions at school because they get special treatment at home and expect similar treatment everywhere else, she adds. “These children can be demanding and might become bullies,” Nthabiseng explains.

They are often spoilt and might react badly if they don’t get their way. “Many of them go into adult life with a superiority complex, thinking they are better than other people, while others come to realise they were favoured and develop intense feelings of guilt,” she says.

Why it happens

Parents can’t always love kids equally because no two children are identical, says Dr Ellen Weber Libby, an American clinical psychologist and author of The Favourite Child. Some children are born looking and acting more like one parent than the other. These similarities either attract or repel us from our children, depending on our own self-image and whether we like ourselves or not, she says.

Ellen says the favouritism a parent feels for one child over another is usually unconscious, not deliberate. Sometimes favouritism can be related to a child’s age or stage of development, as in Asanda’s case. “A mother may favour a younger child and shun a teenage child because the younger child is easier to control than a hormonal and difficult teen, for example,” says Joburg educational psychologist S’mangele Mayisela.

Some mothers might also find it more difficult to bond with their eldest child if they struggled to cope with being a new mom. A parent might relate better to children of a similar sex. But the opposite could also be true, as in Asanda’s case. Similarly, a parent might feel closer to a child who shares his or her interests.

Sometimes a particular child fills a basic need in a parent and is rewarded with better treatment. For example, if a mother always wanted to excel at school, she’ll favour her clever child.

How to fix favouritism

Parents have a responsibility to recognise if they have a favourite child and address the problem. If you think you’re favouring one child over another, don’t ignore your feelings - acknowledge them.

Realise that favouritism could damage all your children, says Nthabiseng. Rectify the situation by making a conscious effort to treat your children equally.

Come up with a plan of action and stick to it. Make amends. Reach out to your unfavoured child. Be loving and attentive and try to understand and deal with their feelings of anger, rejection and resentment.

Set parent/child boundaries. Remember you are your child’s parent, not friend. It’s in your favoured child’s best interests to be disciplined when necessary.

If a favoured child has had unnecessary privileges, reduce them slowly. Don’t stop them suddenly as it will take time for the child to adjust to the new situation. Be prepared for your favoured child to resent you for rectifying the situation. The child may feel that you don’t love him anymore and may become angry and aggressive. Deal with the situation calmly and lovingly.

Spend quality time with all your children, together and separately, so that they feel loved. Ask your partner or spouse to do the same. Treat your children as individuals who each have unique personalities, special qualities, talents and skills.

Remember that sibling rivalry is normal and be prepared for it. Allow children to sort out their differences themselves, unless it gets ugly – then step in and deal with the issues fairly. Let your children, especially unflavoured children, spend time with other important people in their lives such as their grandparents and extended family members who make them feel special and build up their self-esteem.

If you feel overwhelmed by the situation and don’t know how to cope, seek help from a professional.

Where to get help

If you’re struggling to cope with favouritism and need professional help contact the Family and Marriage Society of SA (FAMSA) which offers specialised counselling to families by trained social workers. There are 26 branches throughout the country.

  • FAMSA Joburg 011-788-4784
  • FAMSA Cape Town 021-447-7951
  • FAMSA Durban 031-202-8987

* Not their real names.

- Kim van Reizig

- Extra research: Ruwaydah Lillah

Extra sources: guardian.co.uk, psychologytoday.com, huffingtonpost.com, dailyrecord.co.uk, familymagazinegroup.com

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