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How to Understand the Unfavored Child in the Family

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.

Least Favorite Child Syndrome

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. They're 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 their 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 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 is 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, and 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 parent 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.

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 than 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 effect 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.

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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 differently 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.

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 than 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 fewer privileges than the other children in the family.

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 essence, 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, that 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 on the whole family.

Questions & Answers

Question: Could this possibly be the underlying cause of my severe depression from a very young age?

Answer: Being the unfavored child in the family can irreparably harm a child. An unfavored child is an outside child in the family. H/she is oftentimes marginalized, even demonized by parents. An unfavored child is oftentimes treated more harshly and used as a scapegoat. I suggest that you get psychological, if not psychiatric help. Also, disassociate yourself from your parents- they are toxic if not abusive.

© 2012 Grace Marguerite Williams


Grace Marguerite Williams (author) from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York on May 15, 2020:

Thank you so much for responding.

Ben Zoltak from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on May 14, 2020:

Wonderful observations for those who have suffered this kind of family prejudice. I've seen this work by way of inlaws as well, targeting daughters-in-law and sons-in-law, heaping pain and blame onto one or more people in extended families.

I especially enjoyed this bit:

"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."

Very articulate, well put!


Grace Marguerite Williams (author) from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York on January 24, 2020:

Middle children are oftentimes the LEAST FAVORITE children in their families. Middle children are viewed as the other even outsiders in their own families. The late Grace Kelly a/k/a Princess Grace of Monaco was also the unfavored child in her family as was Madonna.

Love NY on January 24, 2020:

Wow this article was spot on! I am the middle child and clearly the least favorite. Even my children are the least favorite of the grand children. It’s heartbreaking. I’ve rebelled, I’ve separated myself and yet I suffer from depression because I constantly feel like a failure. I demand loyalty from those I choose to interact with and accept no less. I can honestly say I love my kids equally! They each are so unique and there’s no reason to compare. We celebrate each of their strengths. I just need to let go of my anger and resentment so I can live my best life.

An3et on November 04, 2019:

This is why I do not want to attend my mother's birthday dinner. I am sick and tired of their blatant favouritism of my youngest sister (also extended to her kids). Currently she is draining them financially and has not plans to get a job. I have spoken up, but as the black sheep, I just get dismissed. My parents are too blind to see that their favouritism and enablement of my sister (unemployed, twice divorced) who is not able to "adult". They also do not see the damage is has done on relationships with the family (as people who speak up just get pushed aside). It hurts, but I am done with the toxicity. Let's hope when the pensions are depleted, she has a job and will be able to look after them.

Grace Marguerite Williams (author) from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York on August 06, 2019:

If family is abusive & toxic, it is better psychologically to cut all ties w/them. You don't need family like this. Cut all ties!

Mario M52 on August 06, 2019:

Wow , fantastic article thank you!

Im currently not sure what to do my European family dosen't understand, i am the middle child of a weathy family , i have tried my whole to do the best job ,whatever task i was given, unfortunately everything I've done has never been good enough fir the CEO/ owner/ dad of the business, im always belittled or bullied in front of our staff

Now suffering from depression but still trying to do my job ( sales) from home but available to be on at the office when needed.

The problem is much bigger as the learnt behavior is passed on from generation to generation.

So the favored or 1at born that is showered with time , love and affection lernt and has done well passing that over to his c2 children on the other hand, my child also have struggles aheadbof them which now im responsible for.and its going to be a roughe ride , im so sorry to my children

I dont know how to love , im still learning.

Therea alot in life that is not fair.

Is it fair to bring childen ito this wotld , and provide one with that world , and prodivde another a world of sadness, loneliness pain and fear?

To physically physiologically emotionally and mentally anuse him/her

Then blame them for there choices ,

I've had enough , and will atand up for myself and more importantly for my family.

I'm done trying to get approval and acceptance im done loving with all my heart just to be beat up.

Im at a point where , im ready to DIVORCE not my wife but Mom and Dad.



Mario M.oMG on August 05, 2019:

Ive been struggling my whole life and recently diagnosed with depression.

I am a middle chils born a year and and half after my brother. Aa a baby i waa told that i waa good i was placwd on a playpenn and left there for and and didn't even make a sound unless i was hungry or neeses a dipper change.

We ha

Grace Marguerite Williams (author) from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York on July 21, 2019:

What you have stated is true. Thank you for responding.

Jennifer Brittenham on July 21, 2019:

"Unfavored children?" What you are describing is abuse and neglect. You've just whitewashed it. The assertion that some "unfavored" aka scapegoated children turn out just fine by distancing themselves from the family is shortsighted and minimizing. No one who is abused and neglected as a child turns out just fine.

Enough of the drama on May 17, 2019:

I am at the point where I have decided that it's just better to distance myself from the drama. My youngest sister was always the favourite and golden child of my parents. Many years later, lots of resentment from me and no understanding of why they did this (my mother has always been dismissive of me, I never knew why), my little sister has become an adult who is extremely narcisitic, selfish, cannot maintain relationships (including 2 marriages) - always never her fault, cannot hold down a proper job and rely on my elderly parents for financial support (incuding her children). She has not learned to be a responsible person and to be accountable for her actions because mommy and daddy will come to her rescue. I have not visited my mother in a year and a half as my sister lives with her now and myself and my son are treated like the enemy every time we visited. My mother always makes excuses for her lack to be a responsible person, it has negatively impacted my father and his partner's relationship. My sister's children are also now part of a new cycle where the mother lets my parents give them whatever they want (she even laughs about it). It is sad that due to my parents toxic enablement, she has managed to distance my mother , herself and my other sister from the rest of the family. It is sad that it has come to this, but I do not have time and energy to get affection and approval from people that I never had.

Hurt on May 13, 2019:

My husband's family is the same. They are a small family. Just two boys. Yet his oldest brother is the golden child which includes his kIds. All of the inheritance and the whole house was left to his older brother and two children while my husband and our family had nothing. It's deeply hurtful. And his brother and family gloat over us. We don't know why we and our children were less loved than the older brother. We have family dinners every week with them and give them lots of gifts. Why are we made to feel we lack something or that we're not good enough, no matter how much we try. It's just seems so unfair.

Grace Marguerite Williams (author) from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York on June 14, 2016:

Favoritism is indeed horrific to both favored & disfavored children.

Grace Marguerite Williams (author) from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York on June 14, 2016:

The issue of favoritism is indeed a very sad situation.

Sandy on June 13, 2016:

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

L S on September 14, 2015:

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.

Grace Marguerite Williams (author) from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York on September 27, 2014:

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

bgurrl on September 26, 2014:

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)

TammanyB on July 16, 2012:

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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