How to Understand the Unfavored Child in the Family

Updated on July 19, 2018
gmwilliams profile image

With over eight years of writing and researching experience, Grace specializes in debunking commonly held myths about family psychology.

When you feel unwanted, the whole world lacks color.
When you feel unwanted, the whole world lacks color. | Source

The family is supposed to be one of the main societal institutions. Families are thought to provide a sense of belonging, love, and support to their members. Family members are often represented as being protective of each other. Their supposed to stick by each other no matter what. If this is how society portrays families, then children are usually loved and treated equally by the parents, right? What world are you living in?

Unfortunately, in the real world, this is too often not the case. In the real world, parents often give one of their children preferential treatment, while other children are ignored, look down upon, or are held to impossible standards. It is a deep and dark secret that parents treat their children unequally. While it can be uncomfortable to talk about these things, it's important to understand why we do this and how we can do a better job of making all children feel loved and respected. This article will address the most frequently asked questions about unfavored children.

What to Know About Unfavored Children

  • Why is one child favored over another?
  • Does birth order play a role in how people view their children?
  • Why are middle children under-appreciated?
  • Are these children different from their parents?
  • Why are unfavored children subject to harsh comparisons?

Why Is One Child Favored Over Another?

There are a myriad of reasons why one child is favored over another. They often possess different characteristics from their parents and/or the rest of their family members. They may be the artistic one among athletes, an introvert among extroverts, the emotional one among the unemotional. However, their differences aren't the only reason that they can be unfavored. In fact, they could even have the same characteristics as their parents and still be subject to emotional neglect.

Sometimes, parents will dislike one of their children precisely because they remind them of themselves. The unfavored child may exhibit the same negative characteristics as their parents, reminding the latter of what they are trying to forget from their past. People's insecurities don't magically vanish when they become parents. Sometimes, what a parents refuses to change in themselves can become a reason for failing to address those same qualities in their children. The children are then met with hostility and strict punishment, rather than the love and understanding that they need.

Why Do Parents Play Favorites?

Everyone has heard about the favorite child. This is the child who is treated better than their siblings. They are given certain privileges that the other children are not afforded. Perhaps they are able to get away with offenses that other children in the family would be punished for. Maybe they are granted special privileges. Maybe they are spoiled. There are plusses and minuses that come with being the favorite child, but choosing to favor one child over another always has negative repercussions across the family. Favoring one child over another can lead to feelings of bitterness and resentment that can hurt the siblings' relationship.

Parents might favor one child over another because the "good child" is doing well in school, sports, or other activities that the parents prefer. For example, if your parents are artists and want you to be an artist, but you don't like art, this can cause a rift. This is true of any bias that parents have towards one area of interest over another.

There are always dichotomies. If a child likes the opposite of what their parents like, then terrible consequences can result. Imagine if you and your sibling work equally hard at the activities that you enjoy, but your parents see your interests as unimportant and your sibling's interests as important. This will cause negativity across the whole family. Now you are not just at odds with your parents, but are forced to compete with your sibling for attention and recognition. Because the interests of the unfavored child are seen as "odd," the child will feel out-of-place in their family. This has many negative consequences across all aspects of that child's life.

When a child is unfavored, they feel like an outsider, a nonentity, as if they are under a dark cloud. No matter what they do, it does not matter. This is why so many of them struggle with depression.

Does Birth Order Play a Role in How People Parent?

Sometimes birth order is influential as to whether or not a child is unfavored. When you measure which children tend to be unfavored, you find that middle children, more often than not, are the ones neglected by their parents. They are the ones who are sandwiched between the oldest and youngest siblings and, therefore, receive less support then their siblings. The middle child is often left feeling like an outcast and feels that they can only rely on themselves.

How Does This Impact the Child's Behavior?

The residual effects of the often indifferent and/or negative treatment of unfavored children is that they often have little or no self-esteem. They believe that they are stuck in a "Catch-22", damned if they do what's "right" and damned if they do what's "wrong." Many of them succumb to a fatalistic self-fulfilling prophecy. Still, others refuse to let this negativity stop them from achieving their wildest dreams. They often become fiercely independent, giving themselves permission to be what they were meant to be.

Why Are Middle Children Under-Appreciated?

In many families, the middle child is left to their own devices. Besides being ignored and less doted on by their parents, middle children are also under-appreciated. In some families, when the middle child makes a mistake or accomplishes a major task they are not given the help, attention, affection, or reinforcement that they needs. If the oldest child has already made this mistake or accomplished this goal, then the needs of the middle child are ignored or seen as old news.

The middle child is the one who is subject to constant comparisons. This child's individual uniqueness is often undervalued. They are constantly compared to their older and younger siblings. In essence, they are never enough and are made to feel that they are always lacking something.

Because middle children are sandwiched between their oldest and youngest siblings, they are treated as the forgotten ones by their parents. They are "just there," no more and no less. As a result of this treatment, many middle children choose anonymity, as their parents are not paying attention to them anyway. They often have little or no sense of worth because they are made to feel insignificant. They feel that they are not valued as individuals.

Does This Neglect Affect The Middle Child's Personality?

This could explain why so many middle children advocate for the underdog and the downtrodden. They were often the unfavored and ignored child in their respective families, so they develop empathy for other like-minded souls. There are other middle children who become quite vocal and aggressive, asserting their rights and dignity, vowing never to be treated differentially and/or ignored by their families ever again. Others elect to pursue avenues totally divergent from their families in order to prove them wrong. Some even choose to go their own way, completely separating from their families.

Many unfavored children carve out a niche for themselves and establish their independence. They refuse to be subjected to the unfair expectations of their families.

Are These Children Different From Their Parents?

There are some children who are extremely different from their parents. These children are often misunderstood. They are just out of sync with their parents and the rest of the family. Maybe these children are more evolved mentally, psychologically, and/or spiritually than the rest of the family members. They could also be dealing with mental struggles caused by loneliness. Parents will sometimes misinterpret the behavior connected to this loneliness and will fail to truly reach out and connect with their child.

Sometimes, being neglected causes the child to be more observant and to mature in ways that are opposed to their parents. Many parents actually do not understand and/or know how to interact with such gifted children. Instead, their gifts are seen as weaknesses. This reinforces the child's sense of isolation. These children often refuse to conform to the more mundane aspects of society and usually follow a quite different life path. It's easy to forget that children can be more mature than their parents and, sometimes, the child no longer wants to handle the insecurity of their parents.

Many parents are nonplussed that their children are different than they are. They often view such children as threats and anathemas instead of appreciating their uniqueness. For some parents, whether consciously or unconsciously, work to homogenize their children, making them conform to the family groupthink.

The unfavored child is often considered "the other" child. They are often held to a different and/or harsher standard then their siblings. They are chastised and/or punished more harshly for mistakes that the other siblings may get away with. They also tend to receive less privileges than the other children in the family.

Unfavored children suffer from low self-esteem because they feel unwanted and/or ignored by their families. The negative treatment they receive can strip them of their sense of self.

Why Are Unfavored Children Subject to Harsh Comparisons?

Unfavored children are often the recipients of unfair comparisons. They are oftentimes compared to the more favored child in the family and/or the favorable children outside the family, such as cousins, friends, and classmates. The unfavored child is often viewed as the "lesser" child while the other child is viewed as the more intelligent, athletic, agreeable, etc. They are made to feel insufficient. In addition to feeling insufficient, they are made to feel as if they have no identity.

Many parents have less than positive feelings towards one or more of their children. These feelings range from mild indifference to outright hatred. Unfavored children are either just tolerated, ignored, or derided. There are quite a few unfavored children who are ostracized and scapegoated for any wrongs committed (whether they are real problems or just misperceptions).

These unfair comparisons happen because the unfavored child does not conform to what their parents find acceptable or commendable. They wonder why this child acts in ways that are contrary to that of the rest of the family. In relation to parental bewilderment regarding the unfavored child, they are often spoken to as if they are an albatross.

Since these parents have low expectations of the child, the child is made to feel that there is something essential that they are lacking. In essence, the child feels that they are doomed from the start and can never do anything right in their parents' eyes. This means that any success they have is obscured by the feeling that no one will care about what they've accomplished. In essense, their successes don't even feel like successes.

What Does All of This Negativity Lead to?

  • Attention seeking: Since they only receive negative attention, some unfavored children act negatively in order to get attention. Unfortunately, they are fulfilling their family's expectations of them. They often become the "bad one" because that is all they hear growing up. Their reasoning is that, if the most important people in their lives feel that they are bad, maybe they are.
  • Becoming nebulous: Still other unfavored children elect to become nebulous. They reason, since their parents pay as little attention to them as possible, it is better for them to be as unobtrusive as possible.
  • Becoming rebellious: Many unfavored children become quite rebellious. They feel that since their parents do not like them much, they are going to nurture themselves. They maintain that they are good and valid people within themselves. They believe in charting their own paths and pursuing their own unique goals, no matter what their parents may think. In their estimation, whether their parents approve or disapprove of them is of no consequence to them.
  • Becoming distant: Other unfavored children become distant from their parents and other family members. They are quite independent, going their own way. They also find more positive role models outside the immediate family, whether it is extended family members such as aunts, uncles, older cousins, grandparents, great aunts/uncles, and non-related persons. Like their more rebellious counterparts, these unfavored children adamantly refuse to let their parents' indifference and negativity affect them. They own their lives and no one is going to influence them to believe otherwise.
  • Finding strength through pain: Many unfavored children carve quite an impressive niche for themselves. Many achieve innumerable successes in business, entertainment, and/or other arenas. They use the fact that they were unfavored to diverge and follow a different path and lifestyle from their other family members. Many others use their unfavored status to champion causes for the unfortunate, downtrodden, and/or the underrepresented among us.

In conclusion, the family unit is supposed to be a cohesive unit where all children within its purview are treated fairly and equally. However, realistically, many parents have children who are either intentionally, or unintentionally, treated better or worse depending upon the family's scenario. If you are a parent, try to pay attention to the signals that you are giving off to your children. How you treat one child versus another can have a negative impact across the whole family.

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 Grace Marguerite Williams

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      • gmwilliams profile imageAUTHOR

        Grace Marguerite Williams 

        2 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

        Favoritism is indeed horrific to both favored & disfavored children.

      • gmwilliams profile imageAUTHOR

        Grace Marguerite Williams 

        2 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

        The issue of favoritism is indeed a very sad situation.

      • profile image

        Sandy 

        2 years ago

        I'm in a similar situation. It's made me a better Mother & Grandmother.

      • profile image

        L S 

        3 years ago

        Statistics may say one thing but in my case it was just the

        opposite. I am the oldest girl with a sister close in age and

        a brother a few years younger. I am and was the least

        favorite of the three. I always felt like my sister was

        the "golden child" with my brother a very close second.

        But I love my siblings dearly and would go out of my way

        to protect them. I love my parents even though they treated

        me different than my siblings. My younger sister has a key

        to their house but when I asked for one they had an excuse.

        My mom gets my sister to bring something delicious to add

        to any holiday meal at her house. I am a very good cook but

        she will not let me bring any kind of dish...I'm asked

        instead to bring some cold drinks or paper cups and plates.

        Even my sister-in-law gets asked to bring a dish or a baked

        desert. She's literally asked me NOT to bring something

        I've made; others have told me I'm a good cook so I can't

        understand her reasoning. My sister and sister-in-law

        are also excellent cooks and bakers so it's not jealousy on

        her part as far as I can tell. She is in denial about how she

        treats me; I used to think it was my father that was worse

        but looking back I don't think so. I think he went along with

        her in some of the things she did, because he likes to have

        peace. I'm determined to not do that to any of my and my

        husbands three children, or to our grandchildren. I love them

        all equally and treat them like they are the most special person

        on the earth to me. I do not want any of them to grow up with

        this hollow feeling inside. If we feel like the black sheep there

        may not be much we can do to fix it. But at least we can

        make sure we don't pass that on to our loved ones.

        I have a close relationship with God through His Son Jesus

        now that I'm an adult, and I know He loves me lock, stock,

        and barrel!! I'll never be second best to Him.

      • gmwilliams profile imageAUTHOR

        Grace Marguerite Williams 

        4 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

        @bgurrl, what you have elucidated is so true indeed.

      • profile image

        bgurrl 

        4 years ago

        There are other things that play into it as well. Was the planned or unplanned this goes for any birth order, was it a difficult birth etc. Also is a parent jealous of another parents attention to a child(ren)

      • profile image

        TammanyB 

        6 years ago

        Very interesting read. I have recently been reading articles and even found a book regarding middle child syndrome. Strangely enough I am the middle child, but I have never felt neglected. I have however developed social skills to understand all walks of life ( maybe being the underdog?) along with being the only child that is now soley independent from a young age. I left the nest before 21 to live my life, carry out my dreams and develop a world where I belong. My parents have always supported my decisions and praised my achievments. What I have found though, and maybe you can discuss this further with me; is my older and younger sibling seem to fight for top ranking support from my parents. They fight with one another and try to gain my parents side for their arguments etc. I then find myself having to nurture and discuss these issues with all members of the family to help them solve the dilemmas. Would this be , because in someway I am an outsider in the picture that I can have a better understanding and give advice and counciling to the matter ? Sorry , your post has just sparkled some thoughts and ideas. thank you!

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