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Dear Dr. Robert,

I am a 22 year old mother of two. I love my children very much, but I feel like I favor my youngest child, who is two. It seems like everything she does is cute and I love to do things with her. But although I love my older child who is four, I don't enjoy doing things with her, and frankly she gets on my nerves. She is very "high spirited" while my younger one is more calm and basically like me. I don't know what to do. I try to treat them equally but I secretly feel more connected to my younger child. I feel very guilty about this, and I don't know if this is normal or not. How can I feel more connected to my older daughter? I feel like our relationship will suffer if this isn't resolved.

Joy Buysse

Cedar Falls, Iowa

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Dear Joy--

Thank you for writing. Your question is one that comes up often in psychotherapy, so I am sure that my reply to your particular situation will be of interest to many of my visitors.

Although there is something of a taboo around admitting that our feelings for one child are not equal to our feelings for another, this is not at all rare, and I would even say that it is normal. Children are individuals as much as adults are, and if our feelings for one adult are not equal to our feelings for another, why should our feelings for one child be equal to our feelings for another?

Your sense of guilt, however, is sending you an important message which you should understand and heed. It is this: if a parent does not handle this disparity of feelings skillfully, both children will suffer. Yes, both. The child who is less favored may feel unlikeable, and so develop serious problems with self-worth and self-esteem. Or the less favored one could come to feel that life is so essentially unfair that there really is no reason to try to live well since one is bound to fail anyway. Or the less favored one might become the kind of adult who, having come to feel that life is cruelly unfair, might treat others cruelly and unfairly.

But, unless this emotional situation is handled skillfully, the favored child could be hurt just as much, or even more. That one may grow up with an exaggerated sense of narcissistic entitlement, believing that "the world owes her a living," and so will not be sufficiently motivated to try to do well, or to get along with others. Or the favored one, as an adult, might expect to be loved without needing to return that love, and this could lead to the kinds relationship difficulties which appear so frequently here on my website. Or, ironically, the favored one, like her sister, could also come to feel that life is essentially unfair, and so develop a cynical attitude similar to that of the unfavored sibling. Or, the favored one might feel that his or her favored status depends on always pleasing the parent, and so might fail to develop his or her "darker" sides, leading to a goody-goody, black and white kind of personality. Or the favored one, feeling that the favored status could be lost if he or she makes a mistake, might live in a state of constant anxiety over that possibility.

Besides these possible negative effects, I should mention also that the inevitable sibling rivalry will be exacerbated greatly if the children feel unequally treated, and so their personal relationship might become fraught and difficult instead of enjoyable and mutually supportive, hurting both of them as they grow up and miss out on the pleasures and strengths of having a sister.

I have only just scratched the surface here--I could go on at great length--so you can see that handling your disparity of feelings so as to avoid such emotional damage is an important project requiring gumption, sensitivity and skill. The good news is that you have recognized the problem (many parents deny it), and say you love both your children very much. This tells me that, even at your relatively young age, you have what it takes to handle this situation properly.

Here is my advice, Joy:

1. Understand that in feeling more kinship with the child who is more like you, you are expressing a personal limitation of your own which has nothing to do with the high-spirited child, for, obviously, there is nothing at all wrong in being high-spirited. Such high spirits may even constitute a great strength, also called "enthusiasm," from the ancient Greek, meaning "having the god within." In other words, this is an opportunity for you to grow emotionally by learning better to appreciate what you are not, what you lack, and you should make use of this opportunity. If I feel comfortable only with people who are like me, my world is quite limited indeed. It is time to stretch, to widen your horizons, and your older child gives you the perfect opportunity. Begin by asking yourself what "high-spiritedness" means to you, and why you are so put off by it. Then ask yourself what is so wonderful about passivity. Make this an ongoing investigation.

2. Loving means to value a person for his or her unique attributes, not just strengths, but weaknesses also. Do not even try to love both children equally. Just love each of them for herself, including what is awkward or painful, not just what is attractive to you. If you can learn to do this, you will have discovered, in my view, one of the greatest keys to happiness in this life, for then you will have learned to love yourself in that way.

3. Since you understand that your feelings for the older child are problematic, find ways to spend time with her alone, and work consciously on improving the relationship. Praise this girl for her strengths (including her high-spirits, which many parents would find charming). This is entirely up to you. It is your work as a parent, and I advise you to take it seriously. If you really try, you can learn to appreciate this child as the gift she is.

4. When your older child begins to complain that you favor the younger one, do not deny it, but do not admit it either. Just tell her that you love her and always will. Then do something fun with her. Children have amazingly sensitive bullshit detectors, and trying to talk them out of what they know to be true will only compound the damage by confusing them.

5. Although you may not believe this now, your feelings, like everything else, will change over time. It is entirely possible that at some later date you will feel more warmth towards your older girl than towards her younger sister--the reverse of the your present emotional state. As I say, you may feel that this is impossible, but I have seen it happen more than once.

6. Last but not least, Joy, I advise you to remind yourself often and with real conviction of the following information:

(tape it to your mirror and learn it, if that will help, but do learn it)

"To my older daughter I am the most important person on this planet. She looks to me constantly for validation of her personal worth, for approval of her personality and way of being, for cues on how to behave and how to "make it" in this life, and for emotional support in a difficult and possibly frightening world. How she values herself later will depend greatly on how I value her now.

"Whatever happens, whatever else I may feel, I must never forget this!"

I sincerely hope you will be able to make use of this advice. I know you are young yourself, and it is not easy to expand ones emotional horizons, but nothing really worthwhile ever is easy.

Be well.

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page last modified January 21, 2008

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