THE BLOG
07/08/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Understanding the Family Dynamic of Favoritism on Mother's Day

Mother's Day is fast approaching. As the day nears, many mothers find themselves torn between their appreciation for their children and how little they felt appreciated when they were children.

"It was no secret that my mom preferred my brother over me. To this day she will still make her preferences known. As a kid and as an adult today, it's very hurtful," writes one blogger. This blogger is certainly not alone. Her sentiments are echoed by many other online bloggers, by mothers commiserating with one another at school pick-ups, and even by people in my psychotherapy practice.

Conversations like these often prompt mothers to insist that they do not prefer, or favor, one of their children over others. But this belief is wrong--it is impossible not to convey favored treatment of one child over another.

As I explain in detail in my book, The Favorite Child, no two people are identical. Translation: Since no two children are exactly the same, no two children evoke identical feelings and reactions from their parents. Furthermore, parents also have unique personalities that cause them to have different responses to their children's provocations. As strongly as parents tell themselves that they treat all their children identically, they cannot and do not.

Not only do children have unique personalities, each child has his or her own perception of reality. This means each child has beliefs about whether or not he is being favored--and knows why! When parents deny that they have favorites, they are denying what their child believes to be a basic truth. If children feel secure that they are loved, trauma will most likely come NOT from having a favored sibling, but instead from their parents' denial of the favoritism, or the child's perception of reality.
For example, one successful, high functioning client of mine rarely cries except when speaking about her seventh birthday: she hated chocolate and her mother made a chocolate cake (her sister's favorite!). Upon seeing the cake, the seven year old fled the room, shouting that her mother loved her sister more. Her mother, hurt by this accusation of favoritism, insisted that she was crazy for her belief.

Now, as an adult, my client passionately believes she has been more wounded by her mother calling her "crazy" than by her baking her sister's favorite chocolate cake. The mother in this situation refused to see her young daughter's reality.

So, how does a person with a similar childhood heal? In The Favorite Child, I describe exactly what makes a person more or less likely to heal from these injuries. Essentially, people in situations like the one above need "allies for their truth." They need to find another person who sees the reality and truth that they see. With an ally, people are much better able to accept what has occurred and move beyond it.

Luckily, the client above did find these allies in her father, sister and aunts. In these family members, she had her reality affirmed and as an adult, she is able to understand her mother's preference on many levels:

First, her sister was born after her mother had had several miscarriages and had lost hope that she would ever bear a healthy child. With this knowledge my client understands her mother's special embrace of her older sister.

Second, her sister was easy-going and cooperative--just like her mother. "Heck, even I found it easier to be with my sister than myself," my client reported. "She was more self-reliant than me, figuring things out for herself. As for me, I was always asking someone for assistance."
Third, my client remembers that her "sister not only looked like our grandmother, whom our mother adored, but was named after her."

Never did my client question her mother's love for or commitment to her. She did, however, grow up insecure, doubting how her perceptions of the world.

This client, in her journey to a healthier, more emotionally secure life, is not alone. My book describes many other anecdotes in which people face the negative consequences incurred from their parents' denial of favoritism.

On this Mother's Day, all mothers can relate to their children better. Here's how:

By accepting your children's perception of what you convey as a parent
By NOT dissuading your children from what they think is true
And, by using your children's perceptions to your advantage by learning from their comments.