When parents play favourites

The effects of parental favouritism can last a lifetime, not only on the least favoured child but on all the siblings.

Happy family watching television while lying on bed at home

By Nosipho Mashologu 

Parental favouritism is a topic not often discussed among families, at social gatherings and some institutions. When the topic is eventually brought up, some parents earnestly oppose the fact that they favour one child over the other, while others admit that it is inevitable. But, if left unattended, this can have long-lasting effects on both children. “A child who feels shunned is most likely to have a poor self-esteem. After all, if my parents did not think I was worthy, how would anyone else?” says Delia Strondl, a registered counsellor based in Midrand, Johannesburg.

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Whether you are the favoured child or least favoured one, the perception of unequal treatment has a detrimental effect on all the siblings. It is important that children are consistently treated equally and fairly, whether at school or home. But this has not always been the case for Elethu*. “My younger sister, Lutho*, always received all the attention. I remember nights when there was a movie on and I would be told that I was too young to watch and was send to bed. But my older brother and Lutho, who was said to be too young to know what was going on, would stay up. While I lay in bed alone, the rest of the family would laugh together and eat ice cream and popcorn,” she says. Sarah Cohen-Shwarz, a professional counsellor who works with adults and children, says the message that you are loved or good enough comes mostly from your parents. So, when equal treatment is given to all children, it instils a sense of integrity and security, which is important as they grow older.


In some cases where parents seem to favour one child, it is often due to challenging circumstances that the family is facing. “There are instances where one child requires more physical assistance than the other, such as special needs. This means that child will get more attention,” says Delia. There are also cases where parents had difficult upbringings that affected their sense of worthiness, leading to feelings of inferiority. This may reflect in the way they raise their children. “When parents don’t accept themselves fully, they see their good behaviour in one child and bad part in the other. And because they don’t like the bad in themselves, they tend to not like the child who projects this,” explains Sarah.

From time to time, parents also need to do introspection to check whether their past hurts and emotions are dealt with before it affects their children. “My mom has always been the black sheep of the family. My grandmother told her outright that she was a mistake. One year, my grandmother gave my uncle a tablet for his birthday while my mom got an ugly dress for hers,” says Taylor*.


Parental favouritism has major effects on both children – favoured and least favoured. Sarah and Delia agree that the effects can be damaging to all family members if not addressed. “When a parent favours another and not you, you obviously think there must be something wrong with you. This can then lead to anger, disruptive behaviour and affect your ability to enter another relationship. It can also cause anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. If parents’ progression to the child is severe, it can result in personality, mood and severe attachment disorders. Some parents can be very rejecting, which is not good as it may cause the break-up of family relationships,” explains Sarah.

Parents are often perturbed as to why their children hang out with the wrong crowd or do things that they should not be doing. Children that are least favoured always feel inadequate at home, so they go out to find a sense of belonging and approval from outside. And, this is usually at an expense. “A child that is not favoured may seek approval or attention from other adults such as teachers, coaches or other family members. The attention-seeking may be done using positive behaviour such as being the best in class. But, often, the behaviour is negative and may result in criminal activity. Unfortunately, this creates a further divide between the parents and child,” explains Delia.

Sarah, however, explains that favouritism can have a positive effect on the favoured child, such as boosting their confidence. But, guilt can also creep in as they may blame themselves. It could also cause sibling rivalry.


Parents need to look out for signals that they are playing favourites. These vary from which child is being spoken to the most to who gets the most hugs and kisses. In some cases, the signs are not noticeable, so it’s best to ask those around you. “The way you respond to each child in similar situations says a lot. For example, one child may be tutted for not completing their homework while the other is sternly reprimanded.  Favouritism can be displayed in the degree of affection shown to each child and, in extreme cases, chores may be unequally distributed and resources unevenly shared,” says Delia.

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Parents are encouraged to learn the love language of each of their children to express it effectively. Children are unique, and they feel love in different ways. Dealing with parental favouritism can be an easy task to some parents; but to others, it could turn be intimidating and life altering. “In order to stop the favouritism, the reason behind it must be understood and this may require counselling. Finding a common interest or setting aside time for the ‘non-favoured’ child can strengthen the relationship between parent and child. This is only possible if the parents can see that they have been favouring one child,” explains Delia. Sarah agrees, saying for the sake of solving this conundrum, it is the parent’s duty to change. “Parents and children can go to therapy, but it won’t be effective until the children are older. Doing so when they are still young, only subjects them to the same traumatic situation,” she advises. Sarah adds that parents are allowed to be alone with one child at a time and express their love in the way that child recognises. “It’s only a matter of instilling the right values and making it clear to the children,” she concludes.

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*Not their real names