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When Parents Play Favorites

When Parents Play Favorites

Julie looked up and scanned the bleachers.  Nope, he wasn’t there yet.  Taking a deep breath, she steeled herself for the fact he probably wouldn’t make it — again.  When it came to her swim meets, something always seemed to come up — an unscheduled conference, last-minute call, an unexpected rush of work. 

Getting focused again on the competition, Julie prepared for her race.  Inside, though, she was angry — angry at her father’s constant failure to take time off to watch her perform.  He always seemed to have time to watch her perform.  He always seemed to have time to watch her brother play football, baseball, or whatever.  He didn’t make it to every game, but he went enough that he showed how important it was to him to watch Mark play. 

Julie’s dad had never shown up at one of her swim meets. He had promised to “see if I can make it” a half dozen times, but every time she scanned the crowd, she never saw his face.  I’m just not as important to him as Mark is, she thought to herself, resisting that conclusion but making it nevertheless.  What else was she to think?  If I were a boy, I bet he would watch me swim.  Anger built up inside of Julie.  Anger was good; it made her swim faster.  Her dad was just never there to see it. 

Few things are as devastating to a child as the realization that her parents love a sibling more than they love her.  Often it isn’t so much that the parents love another more but rather that they love another more easily.  For whatever reason, the ability to love the other child comes more naturally. 

Children are not stupid.  They can sense when this type of inequity exists.  They can sense it even when the parent does not.  Desperately they attempt to figure out what is wrong with them.  The reasons they come up with can cause lifelong damage to self-esteem. 

Parents have a variety of reasons for playing favorites with their children.  Expectations of what they want each child to be are applied early, and each child is judged by a certain standard.  Often the first and oldest child sets that standard.  Temporarily the only child, the first child is accustomed to dealing mostly with adults from an early age and is often comfortable and deferential around adults.  The children who follow are held accountable to emulate a situation that no longer exists in the family.  Expectations are not met, and comments such as “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” are the result. 

It is said that opposites attract and equals repel.  If you put magnets together one way, they quickly attract each other, but turn them around and try to push them together, and they push off in opposite directions.  Sometimes friction is caused by the very traits in the adult that are present in the child.  A willful mother will butt heads with a willful daughter.  A sarcastic father will clash with a mouthy son. 

In healthy relationships, differences are considered strengths and are used to build up each other.  Each child in a family needs to be loved and accepted for who he or she is.  Healthy families encourage their children’s unique giftedness, and they practice love, acceptance, and forgiveness. 

If you grew up in an unhealthy family, you may not have come to realize what a special person you are.  Finding your specialness and truly feeling it will help you to reestablish your sense of self-worth. 

Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 37 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.

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