THE BLOG
08/27/2010 02:37 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Attention Parents: YOU Have a Favorite Child, Whether You Like It or Not

"Admitting to a favorite kid is one of the biggest taboos in parenting, although the vast majority of moms -- and pretty much all kids -- perceive that there is a golden child in just about every family," blogs Amy Kuras in "Toddler Newsletter."

As the saying goes, the truth will set you free.

There are a lot of parents who describe having a child who receives special treatment, but still, parents have a hard time admitting that they favor one child over others. The terms differ but the message is the same: there is a favorite child.

Two recently published studies, independent from one another, came to an agreement regarding favoritism.

The first study was directed by Cornell University's Karl Pillemer and published in the April 2010 issue of Journal of Marriage and the Family. The second study, recently published in my book "The Favorite Child," (Prometheus Books) explains that favored and unfavored children are equally vulnerable to depression due to the tension associated with being or not being chosen by the parent important to the child. Both studies came to the same conclusions, saying favoritism:

• is common in families;
• can contribute to depression in both the favored and unfavored child; and
• impacts all family members for life.

The Unfavored Child
Unfavored children often live their lives seeking validation. They look to others to choose them as they had hoped their parents would. Of course, no one can fill the void created by parental neglect or oversight. These unfavored children often grow up with insecurities about whether they will ever be loved by anyone.

It can be a struggle for these children to establish intimacy. To be intimate, one's heart has to be open to others, and unfavored children tend to develop defenses to protect themselves against being disappointed when not chosen by people important to them.

Growing up as an unfavored child can not only affect relationships but work ethic as well. Many children who grow up unfavored give in to the notion that no matter how hard they try, they will not achieve the desired outcome. Throughout their childhood, they may have worked hard to achieve a more preferred status; but as hard as they worked, they failed to win a position already taken by a sibling. These children easily feel defeated and over time, they develop the attitude that hard work will not be rewarded. They are easily frustrated and walk away from challenges.

Finally, unfavored children are prone to lash out. They are angry with the parent who treats them as the unfavored child. They are angry with the other parent for letting it happen. They may be angry with the sibling who is favored, especially if that sibling exploits the advantages of being favored. Unfortunately, as the child grows up, their anger is likely to have a short fuse that can lead to inappropriate behavior.

The Favorite Children
Golden children are also vulnerable to depression. They can develop unhealthy personality traits and never discover who they really are. They have learned how to attain whatever they desire from the adoring parent, making them masters of the art of manipulation. These golden children grow up knowing how to get what they want, when they want it, and consequently develop feelings of entitlement.

Favorite children are also likely to mature without an identity of their own. This is because they become preoccupied with pleasing the most important parent just to keep their status as the favorite child.

Finally, favorite children often harbor secret feelings of resentment towards the parents who favor them. These children tend to feel trapped by their relationships with their adoring parents. As one woman expressed, "Do I have to wait for my mother to die to have my own life?"

Depression
Desiring to be the favorite child or working to maintain that status creates complicated issues for both the golden child and the unfavored child. Both are likely to be marred by symptoms of depression. Each child may struggle with loneliness or emotional isolation. Each child may find it difficult to achieve psychological independence. Each child may end up with addictions that can worsen the quality of their lives.

Of course, there are advantages to being chosen. In the animal kingdom, the survival of a hatchling or infant can be determined by who is selected to receive a mother's milk. In humans, while being selected and its consequences are usually not so dire, the emotional health of the child largely depends on how secure that child is with their mother's love. Children crave their parents' affection and want to believe that their parents love no one else as much as them. It's hard not to smile when toddlers ask their mothers and fathers, "Do you love me more than anyone else in the whole wide world?" However, in order to function as a healthy adult, children need to learn to feel secure in the world without their parents' constant affirmation. They become vulnerable to depression when they cannot accomplish this important milestone.

What Can Be Done
Open communication between all members of a family is the best technique to prevent emotional trauma. It can also help to remedy corroded family relationships. Dialogue like this is difficult to obtain. All family members must value it, and everyone has to be willing to work for it. To put it simply, everyone must:

LISTEN to each other;
RESPECT different viewpoints;
STRIVE to accept the truth of different perceptions;
WORK deliberately at not being defensive; and
FEEL safe to express words of personal truth.