I wasn’t exactly surprised when, in the midst of a recent disagreement, my 11-year-old son expressed how upset he was by telling me that he believed I love his younger sister more than him. That’s a pretty common go-to move that most parents hear at some point, and I certainly remember breaking it out on at least a couple of occasions when I wasn’t getting the attention I wanted from my mom.
But after the obligatory, “Oh, that’s ridiculous!” that most parents probably reflexively reply with when faced with that familiar scenario, I thought about it again later. Is he right? Do I play favorites?
I obviously don’t love one of my children more than the other. But his sister and I do have more similar temperaments and senses of humor. Is it possible that I unknowingly send a message to him that I have a favorite child? And, if so, what can I do to fix it?
“Most of the time, when children say those things, almost always it is about attention, whether it’s emotional attention or physical attention,” says Loretta Rudd, project director, clinical associate professor, and program coordinator for child development and family studies at the University of Memphis.
The ramifications for not taking claims of favoritism seriously can cause a negative impact for kids later in life. Psychology Today points out that “disfavored children” can be at greater risk for depression, substance abuse, greater aggressiveness, or poor academic performance, among other things. Healthline also notes that the favoritism doesn’t necessarily even have to be real—simply perceiving that they are the least-favored child can lead to similar negative consequences later in life.
The good news is that, most of the time, parents can simply use healthy communication habits to help make favoritism accusations into teachable moments.
Explain how difference in age mean differences in responsibilities
One easy way differences in rules for siblings can start to manifest in accusations of favoritism is when an older child starts to get more privileges. Older kids may stay up later, have more freedom to talk with or see friends, get to watch shows or games with more mature themes, or get to do other activities with less stringent parental oversight.
When younger siblings take notice and believe parental bias or favoritism is the cause, it is important to explain the added responsibilities that typically go with those privileges.
“There are social norms, maybe, that the older child gets to first,” Rudd says. “So, they’re getting something the younger child isn’t. But if you can explain to them that, as they get there [developmentally], they’ll have the opportunity. You can’t promise them they’re going to get it, but just explaining that with privileges comes responsibility, and being really clear and up front [is best].”
Since younger kids are attention-driven, lessons about responsibility can be reinforced with them when they ask to do things. For example, saying that we can play a game or go for a bike ride after the kitchen is clean is a way to subtly teach them that sometimes fun or privileges require less fun tasks being handled first.
There are also moments when kids simply do need to be treated differently. The Conversation notes that sometimes, a sibling is sick, hurt, has special needs, or there are other circumstances that could cause parents to treat one child differently. Those reasons should be talked about with age-appropriate transparency.
If parents start having that level of transparency in their communication with kids at younger ages, it will pay off as they get older.
“It really is about putting in the hard work when they’re young,” Rudd says. “If you help them build those emotional regulation and social skills when they’re at that early childhood stage, 0-4, you’re going to have an easier time. That’s not to say that it’ll be smooth sailing when they’re tweens or teens, but it will be easier if you’ve spent time talking about it.”
Recognize—and appreciate—your kids’ differences
It can be fairly easy to see obvious differences in personalities among multiple kids. Understanding the individual needs that those differences create can be a bit more challenging, though.
At early ages, when toddlers don’t have the words to explain when they’re feeling jealous or not getting the attention they want or need, parents can still show all of their kids they are loved through physical interaction and attention, while also using words to express love.
“When they’re toddlers, it’s really about physical and emotional attachment,” Rudd says. “They wouldn’t usually have the words to say, ‘You like him better than me.’ But they will do things like grab or hit or cling to mom or dad. It’s really about using words to explain to children that you love them both.”
As they get older, those conversations can get more detailed. Parents can pick out or zero in on specific aspects of their kids’ personalities or traits and show that they notice their unique identities.
“You tell them that you love them for their own individual characteristics,” Rudd says. “A lot of it is, are parents will to spend the time and energy to use words and to really just talk openly.”
Find individual time for each kid
For busy families, especially larger families, carving out individual time for each kid can be daunting. But one thing to keep in mind is that those attention needs aren’t always consistently the same.
“Sometimes, one person in the family needs more attention at a particular time than another person,” Rudd says. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be on a daily basis. If you can manage that, it would be ideal, but if not, just find one day a week for a walk with one parent or the other.”
Rudd uses bedtime as an example to take a few minutes of individual time with each kid just to check in. Another key aspect for parents to keep in mind is that kids’ interests will change quickly, so being flexible about how you spend that individual time with them is also key.
“Parents can’t assume that just because when they were in grade school they liked ballet, for example, that they’ll like it in junior high,” Rudd says. “It is more than likely their interests will change, so being tuned into that is important.”
Model good communication habits yourself
By far the best thing parents can do is exhibit healthy communication in their relationships with their children and with other adults. Kids watch, observe, and will model behaviors and tactics whether they’re healthy or negative.
“The phrase, ‘Children learn what they live’—it’s so true,” Rudd says. “So, if parents can manage their emotions and have good emotional regulation and the ability to express even very strong feelings in appropriate ways, children are watching that. They are watching how parents manage conflicts, and when we do a crummy job, they see that, too.”