Behaviors that indicate inequality among children -- such as unconditional approval, leniency, privileges and affection -- tend to breed resentment and rivalries. When accompanying animosity and feelings of rejection linger into adulthood, they can lead to depression, low self-esteem and dysfunctional relationships. Coping with the effects of childhood favoritism requires careful assessment, honest discussions, acceptance and, hopefully, the cooperation of your parents and siblings.
Before confronting parents about favoritism issues, step back and assess the facts without the influence of raw emotions. Recollections of past favoritism influence perceptions of current favoritism, which means the preferential treatment among adult children may not be as dramatic as it feels, according to a 2009 study headed by Purdue University researchers and published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. Determine if you're facing genuine favoritism or perceived slights blown out of proportion by traumatic childhood memories. This process should also include self-evaluation to determine if your behavior and actions are contributing to the favoritism. For example, a parent may share more time, money and confidences with one sibling simply because that sibling has made an effort to stay connected with the parent.
Arrange a sit-down conversation with parents, ensuring that you have privacy, freedom from interruptions and enough time to fully address the issue. It's best to prepare yourself with concrete examples of favoritism. This discussion may lead to the discovery that your parents weren’t aware of their favoritism and result in changes in their behavior. On the other hand, parents may disagree with your assessment and make no adjustments. Go in with the goal of making your voice heard rather than trying to force a certain outcome.
Whether perceived or real, parental favoritism wreaks havoc on relationships between adult siblings. Counteract the effects of sibling rivalry by cultivating a close relationship with your siblings independent of your parents. Arrange to spend time together outside of family functions and reach out between in-person visits with phone calls and emails focused on your siblings' lives, rather than on your childhood or your parents. Close connections with siblings may counteract the negative effects of parental favoritism, as adult children offer each other the emotional support and approval not received from the parent. Even favored children benefit from positive sibling relationships, as they are often under pressure to become the caretaker of aging parents. As favorites, they are also in the best position to foster improved relationships between parents and nonfavored siblings.
Find the Bright Side
The ideal answer to solving parental favoritism among adult siblings may be for parents to acknowledge and make reparations for the negative effects of their actions; however, this resolution may not be possible. When you’ve taken all the positive steps toward mending bonds with your parents and siblings, it is time to find emotional acceptance and approval elsewhere, such as with extended family, friends, your spouse and your own children. Relegate childhood resentments and rivalries to the past by focusing on the positive memories you share with your parents, and paying less attention to their relationships with siblings. While easier said than done, forgiving favoritism is possible when you remember that your parents are simply people with flaws and faults to be accepted if they cannot be corrected.
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- National Institutes of Health: The Role of Perceived Maternal Favoritism in Sibling Relations in Midlife
- Journal of Marriage and Family: The Role of Perceived Maternal Favoritism in Sibling Relations in Midlife
- Parade Magazine: The Science of Siblings
- Cornell University: Study: Moms’ Favoritism Tied to Depression in Adulthood
- The New York Times: Mom Always Liked You Best
- Oprah.com: Forgiving Your Parents
- MetroParent: Long-Term Effects of Favoritism
- The New York Times: Depending on the Favored Child
- Live Science: Mom’s Favoritism Stings, Even for Adults
- Purdue University: Study: When Dads Play Favorites; The Kids Know
- Washington Post: Mother’s Preference Among Kids Tends to Persist Even When She’s Old
- Psychology Today: When Parents Play Favorites
A former art instructor, high school counselor and party planner, Christine Bartsch writes fashion, travel, interior design, education and entertainment content. Bartsch earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in communications/psychology/fine arts from Wisconsin Lutheran College and a creative writing Master of Fine Arts from Spalding University. She's written scripts for film/television productions and worked as the senior writer at a video game company.
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