How Harmful is Parental Favouritism?

©Jan Andersen 2003

How often have you heard a child complain, "But that's not fair! He always gets his own way!"?  Although sibling rivalry is common, how is a child's mental well-being and your relationship affected when your spouse so very obviously favours one child over another?  

Some parents may show favouritism subconsciously by taking sides depending on the gender or age of the child. Do the seemingly harmless expressions, "You're older, you ought to know better" or "I always wanted a son" sound familiar?

Favourtism not only occurs in the stepfamily situation where a parent favours a biological child over a stepchild, but also occurs in first families when a child can be given preferential treatment based purely on gender. 

Interior Designer and former editor of Parent's Voice, Nadine Higgins, said, "'I remember as a child all too well the painful distinctions my mother made between we girls and her beloved boys and it's an experience that you don't leave behind very easily. The ghost of her nagging disapproval, slaps, put downs and unfair house rules still live within me as an adult."

Parental favouritism not only affects the children, but also causes conflict within the parents' relationship.  Relationship Counsellor Paula Hall Dip PST says, "Certainly, parental favouritism in second families is a common reason why families seek counselling, but it is important to establish whether the perceived favouritism is a reflection on your own childhood, or reality. Some people who were disfavoured as children go to extreme lengths not to favour any of their own children, so may feel that their partner is giving preferential treatment to a child when they are just treating them differently according to their individual personalities and interests."

PR Consultant, Sarah, has sadly experienced the marital discord that parental favouritism causes. "My husband Graeme's favouritism of our natural child over my son from a previous relationship led to a rift that deepened over the years. My son felt increasingly rejected, so he hated his sister. My son is 16 and is now able to tell me that, as an 8-year-old, he felt he had to compete for my husband's affection. My husband has recently left and the favouritism was one of the major factors that divided the family."

Dr Caron Goode, Inspirational Speaker and Author of Help Kids Cope with Stress & Trauma  says, "Favoured children tend to have better self esteem, yet can also be spoiled and manipulative. These children may think the world owes them a living. On the other hand, with healthy self-esteem, they could tend to be high achievers and do well.  Disfavoured children tend to have lower self-esteem, which can either make them try harder or give up too easily. Trying to please is one of the characteristics that might make them either compliant or rebellious. It can go either way, depending upon the temperament of the child." 

Paula Hall concludes, "If favouritism is an issue in your relationship, you need to try to sit down with your partner and discuss what impact this is having on you, rather than using the time to arbitrate for your child. If this fails, then I would advise seeking counselling."

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