The Enormous, Lasting Impact Of Having Favourites In The Family By Dr Linda Berman.

  • The Family Favourite.

imageVivian Smith – The Favourite. Wikimedia Commons

Every child is different and has their own special qualities. Whilst we cannot treat them all the same, given that they are all different, we can try hard to know and understand ourselves in order to be fair and even-handed.

Favouring one child over another is damaging and destructive and it affects the whole family, not just the favoured child.

The favoured child is often labelled as the ‘golden child,’ ‘the superstar,’  ‘the miracle child,’ ‘my angel,’ ‘the blue-eyed boy,’ ‘the good one……’

Even if there are no siblings, labelling a child as ‘special’ and expecting the child to live up to that label can be very damaging.

The favoured child may detect that they do not merit the over-lavish praise, treats and attention and may grow up lacking confidence; on the other hand, they may also have an over-blown sense of their own value.

It is also confusing for the child, who is made to feel ‘special’ for no real reason.

This favouritism is about the parents’ needs, their hopes and dreams, rather than the child’s.

“Parents who were themselves raised with too little attention given to their own early feelings, if they have not worked out the resulting emotional problems in subsequent years, often look forward to having children of their own so that the children will make them happy.”

Sheldon B. Kopp

Like their parents, it is probable that such favoured- or unfavoured- children have never been loved and appreciated for their authentic selves, for the person they really are.

The child can grow up with a false self, feeling that they are cheating people, pretending to be what they are not.

Masks – Louis Soutter. Wikioo.

“And should I wear my mask too long, when I take it off and try to discard it, I may find that I have thrown my face away with it.”

Sheldon B. Kopp

Having always been regarded as the ‘superstar,’ they can never be seen to be ordinary or average at anything.

imageGrandma’s Favourite – Georgios Jakobides. Wikioo.

This, in itself, is a huge pressure, in that the child may find it difficult to fail at anything, throughout life. They have to be faultlessto live up to the labels that are put on them, often from a very early age.

In this kind of family scenario, love is far from unconditional. It is dependent on the child continuing to be successful.

This may lead to a child growing up to be narcissistic, unable to acknowledge any ‘weaknesses’ or insecure feelings and getting angry when they feel criticised for the slightest issue, blaming others, needing to be in the limelight, and having a sense of entitlement.

imageEcho and Narcissus. John William Waterhouse. 1903. Wikimedia Commons.

Favouring a child will inevitably also mean that siblings become envious and resentful. This favouritism actually deprives the favoured child of a necessary bond with their siblings.

Such a loss will create a feeling in the child of being rejected, sad and lonely, despite being parentally favoured.

If only one parent is doing the favouring, this may also deprive the child of the other parent’s love, who may also be envious of the favouritism and feel overlooked.

  • The Least Favoured Child.

Especially in families with narcissistic parenting, a child may be rejected if they serve as a constant reminder to the parent/s of themselves; they may project their own ‘failings’ onto the child.

They may be labelled as ‘the naughty one,’ ‘the runt of the litter,’ ‘from a different planet,’ ‘the black sheep,’ ‘the bad apple,’ ‘Contrary Mary,’ ‘the little monster.’ (Sadly, I hear this last one a lot.)

There may also be comparisons of the siblings with each other, and the unfavoured one will generally come off worse.

Sadly, a child can become ‘boxed’ and labelled, like an object in a parcel, as they become the victim of parental projections. This is defeating and potentially toxic to their mental health.


“Boxes are for objects, not humans.”

Abhijit Naskar

We may unconsciously project our uncomfortable, negative feelings about ourselves onto others, perhaps the least favourite child, scapegoating and demonising them, instead of being able to face our own shadow side.

This takes the spotlight off us and prevents us having to face our own real feelings.

Very often, the darker side, or as Jung termed it, the shadow side of our personalities is kept under wraps, even from ourselves, buried in the depths of our unconscious.

If we remain in denial about the existence of our own shadow, we will tend to project that darkness onto others.

This involves the mechanism of splitting, of black and white thinking, where the world is divided into people who are wholly good or wholly bad.

Perhaps these repressed ‘monstrous’ and dark aspects of ourselves may feel shameful to us, only revealing themselves symbolically in dreams and nightmares, or maybe leaking out when we are feeling tired, stressed, angry, or have drunk alcohol.

“Monsters are metaphors of our anxiety.”

Richard Kearney.

Francisco_de_Goya_y_Lucientes_-_Witches'_Sabbath_(The_Great_He-Goat)Francisco Goya. The Great He-Goat.

“The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.”

Carl Jung

‘Everyone carries a shadow and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.’

Carl Jung.

imageThe Monster. Odilon Redon. Wikioo.

“We all hold a monster inside. The only difference is what form it takes when freed.” 

Mary Lindsey.

If we are unaware of the ‘monster inside,’ of our own human potential to be cruel, evil or sadistic, then, inevitably, we will search for others to label as monstrous, thus avoiding facing our own darkness, our own shadow side.

Everyone has a shadow side, regardless of how peaceful and happy they might appear.

There is an old saying which urges us to remember that ‘when you point the finger at someone, remember that there are three fingers pointing back at you.’ This is especially important to remember in relationships with our children.

If we can first make a connection between the various inner aspects of ourselves, start to admit into consciousness thoughts and feelings previously repressed and denied, then we might get in touch with the parts of ourselves hitherto unconsciously regarded as ‘bad.’

We need to come to terms with these inner aspects, to acquaint ourselves with and ‘befriend’ what we might regard as the ‘monsters’ inside, without self-judgement.

“The monsters were never
under my bed.
Because the monsters
were inside my head.

I fear no monsters,
for no monsters I see.
Because all this time
the monster has been me.”

Psychotherapy may be necessary to help us connect with aspects of our unconscious in this way. Then we will, hopefully, learn to recognise and withdraw our projections and begin to treat  all our children equally, with kindness and empathy.

  • A Closer Look At The Black Sheep And The Scapegoat.

Poor black sheep and goats…..they seem to have been selected to carry the projections of many, many people over the centuries……

The Black Sheep.

imageBlack Sheep. Jesus Solana. Wikimedia Commons.

“People who label others are just lost souls who refuse to see their own shortcomings.”

Christine Szymanski

Being labelled ‘the black sheep of the family’ is unpleasant, depressing and damaging. (The term developed from the killing of lambs that were not white, as their wool could not be dyed.)

The unfavoured child can be burdened with such an unfair accusation, and can carry the negatives, the projections of blame, the shame and guilt, for others in the family, who may then be left feeling (temporarily) ‘good,’ blame-free and smugly virtuous.

imageBlack Sheep. Jesus Solana. Wikimedia Commons.

“If you are different from the rest of the flock, they bite you.”

Vincent O’Sullivan

Sometimes, where one child in the family shows themselves to be different, they can be marginalised and labelled negatively.

Perhaps they are more empathic and sensitive, or do not fit in with family views or norms and want to be independent and have their own, different ways of thinking.

A patient I once worked with said they felt like ‘a plum tied to an apple tree,’ in their family.

imageApple trees laden with fruit – Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Wikioo

The Scapegoat.

Hunt, William Holman, 1827-1910; The ScapegoatWilliam Holman Hunt – The Scapegoat – 1906. Wikimedia Commons.

I have, in a previous post  mentioned Kearney’s excellent book Strangers, Gods and Monsters. He describes the creation of scapegoats as a way of ridding oneself of aspects of the personality that may feel ‘bad.’

We do not come into this world with a label. Labels may be put upon us, sadly, from the moment we are born. This is tragic, because it can limit a child’s potential.

‘Designing’ a child to fit one’s own concept of how that child should be is projecting our own needs onto them and stopping them from being authentic.

The child will only be a reflection of ourselves and our needs and may struggle to find their real wants and needs.

imageAlien Child – Carroll Cloar. Wikioo.

“You must be successful, affluent, powerful, married to the right person,” and so on. Each child is thus launched in service to the parent’s neurosis, and gets further and further from his or her own soul.”

James Hollis

When a child is rejected in this way, there may not be much empathy for them.

A ‘pull yourself together attitude,’ a lack of understanding and a failure to comprehend how depressed a child can get as a result of such experiences will, inevitably, make things worse, even though it might be intended to ‘cheer them up.’

Margaret Atwood’s poem clearly expresses such an approach:

imageFairy child crying – Peter Blake. Wikioo.

A Sad Child.

You’re sad because you’re sad.
It’s psychic. It’s the age. It’s chemical.
Go see a shrink or take a pill,
or hug your sadness like an eyeless doll
you need to sleep.

Well, all children are sad
but some get over it.
Count your blessings. Better than that,
buy a hat. Buy a coat or pet.
Take up dancing to forget.

Forget what?
Your sadness, your shadow,
whatever it was that was done to you
the day of the lawn party
when you came inside flushed with the sun,
your mouth sulky with sugar,
in your new dress with the ribbon
and the ice-cream smear,
and said to yourself in the bathroom,
I am not the favourite child

My darling, when it comes
right down to it
and the light fails and the fog rolls in
and you’re trapped in your overturned body
under a blanket or burning car,

and the red flame is seeping out of you
and igniting the tarmac beside your head
or else the floor, or else the pillow,
none of us is;
or else we all are.

Margaret Atwood

  • The Family That Functions


Family (with Two Children) – Emile Nolde. Wikioo.

“You don’t get harmony when everybody sings the same note.”

Doug Floyd.

How could we define a ‘functional family?’ It certainly is not one where everything is hunky-dory all the time, where there is only sweetness and light, calmness and love.

That would be unreal, unwanted, untenable, and only suitable as the subject of a picture-perfect fantasy film.

37978713341_8d6f089224_oLorie Shaull. Little House on the Prairie lunchbox. Flickr.

A real, functional family is one where people can feel free to be themselves, to express their thoughts and feelings, without fear of being judged or condemned.

It is a place where individual differences are validated and celebrated, where love is unconditional, and children are treated with respect and fairness.

Of course, this is not sustainable all the time, and there will be occasions when parents feel unreasonable, irritated, uncompromising and unfair. There really is no ideal family in existence.

We are, none of us perfect and it is important that we don’t beat ourselves up over being human, with all our faults and frailties.

Even of it were possible to be ‘perfect,’ then we would not be giving permission for our children to have their own vulnerabilities and faults…. so, paradoxically, it would be far from perfect!

Parents need to model an acceptance of their own vulnerabilities or mistakes, seeing them as something to learn from.

What is important is that we have awareness of how our own issues, unless recognised and worked through, can make life difficult for our children.


James Gill. “Behind the shadow (restudy)” 2003. Wikimedia Commons.

“The best political, social, and spiritual work we can do is to withdraw the projection of our shadow onto others.”

Carl Jung

© Linda Berman.


  1. Very profound. Often our thoughts and behaviour are influenced by the opinions and ideals of others. What a gift it is when one is loved as they are!

    Liked by 1 person

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