It’s very early in the school year and one thing I’ve noticed is that more and more of the students that are getting referred to me for counseling aren’t the typical “bad apples” or “lost” kids, but kids who are good students, are never in trouble, yet are miserable.
How miserable? One cuts herself and thinks about suicide often. Another felt disappointed when she found out she wasn’t pregnant because she thought being pregnant would make her feel alive and purposeful. And one is so depressed that despite appearing to have everything a 17 year old high school girl could ask for, she mopes around campus with her head down.
What do all these students have in common besides being female? They all have a sibling that they are constantly being compared to. A seemingly perfect sibling who makes their accomplishments appear minor in comparison.
These are students, who compared to most other students on campus, are successful. They have mostly A’s and B’s and no disciplinary infractions, yet when compared to a sibling who is making straight A’s , serving as class president and maintaining a thriving social life, they feel inept, especially when their parents are the ones constantly drawing the comparisons.
These students, despite doing their best, are never recognized for it since their best pales in comparison to their sibling’s best. They are often left feeling as if they aren’t good enough and have a diminished sense of self, while the favored child can begin to feel a sense of being special and entitled, often making the less favored child feel even more diminished.
Adolescents tend to be even more sensitive to favoritism by parents than younger children, since they are trying to redefine themselves from being a child to being a young adult.
In doing this they often distance themselves from parents and even have created some tension as they struggle for independence, yet they still want the approval that came along with childhood, approval that the more favored child usually still gets and it can create resentment.
What makes parental favoritism especially harmful is when it is intentional and creates preferential treatment and superiority/inferiority between children.
The disfavored child may begin to believe that they are indeed not as deserving, as good or as smart as the favored child and that could lead to a life time of self-esteem and psychological issues as well as bitterness towards the parents and the other sibling.
So far the students I’m working with, besides complaining about the favoritism and anger towards their parents and sibling, show profound anxiety, depression, self-injurious behavior, low-self-esteem, anger, suicidal thoughts, decrease in self-efficacy and drug use. And these are the “good” kids.
Imagine if they were kids with more disadvantaged backgrounds and more complex psychosocial issues. They could be drop outs, delinquents, heavy drug users, you name it.
There are many different ways parents can show favoritism, including showing inequitable pride, attention and approval to one child, to giving the favored child more freedom and rewards.
To the disfavored child, they often feel as if their parents care for and think less of them. This can cause the disfavored child to dislike the favored child and that can come out in the form of resentment that can continue for life.
At times parental favoritism isn’t done on purpose. It is actually very easy to unintentionally start showing favoritism to one child over another.
Parents need to start recognizing, listening to and accepting when one child is claiming to be treated unfair so that they can analyze the situation.
While sometimes it may seem like the child claiming to be treated unfairly is just nagging, they are often trying to tell the parent that they want some attention or are feeling left out.
Parents should try avoiding comparing their children and should let each one know that they are highly valued for their own unique individuality and that they are all favorites because they are all unique.
The period of adolescence is hard enough, the last thing a child needs is to feel discriminated against within their own family unit.