"Our individual personalities determine how we interact with one another, and we may find it easier to bond with one child versus another," says psychotherapist and author Rebecca Grado. "Unfortunately, this favoritism can inflict long-term emotional damage on a child."
All kids are not created equal
Ideally, parents would love all of their children equally -- but each child is unique. "The way we interact with each of our children's particular personalities is the basis of favoritism," says Candi Wingate, president of Nannies4Hire.
Birds of a feather…
"Parents often favor the child who is most like them," says therapist Leslie Petruk. "They understand them on a different level and connect with them in a way they can't with their other children."
When kids don't fit the picture of the perfect child in our minds, it can affect the way we treat them. Getting past our personal judgments is imperative in raising strong, healthy children.
"Children are incredibly intuitive and know when their parents favor one child over another," says Petruk. "Favoritism is harmful because the child who's not the favorite may feel flawed."
"Not feeling special or accepted by family can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety and even depression," says Grado. "These children may seek approval outside of the family in unhealthy ways and carry through life a sense of never being good enough."
On the other hand, favored kids grow up feeling successful and loved. Sounds ideal, but these children may develop unrealistic expectations that everyone will favor them. When those expectations don't manifest in other relationships, it can be a crushing experience.
Grow up, parents
While the emotions underlying favoritism is human nature, "The choice to act them out is a measure of a parent's emotional control and maturity," says Wingate, who recommends the following tips:
Identify your feelings. I’m frustrated that Jessica holds me at arm's length and won't open up to me. I feel hurt, so my response has been to not try to get close to her anymore.
Identify the potential consequences of your response. If I keep a distance from Jessica, she may grow up thinking that I rejected her.
Form a plan. I don’t want Jessica to feel like I am rejecting her. I want her to feel loved. I will try to strike a balance between Jessica's need to be loved -- even though she doesn't show it -- and my desire not to feel perpetually rejected by her.
"You can overcome your own emotions and learn to nurture all of your children, even those who make it difficult to do so," says Wingate. The long-term payoff -- kids who grow into emotionally, healthy adults.