While most parents swear they feel the same about all their children, that’s usually not true. A study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that 74 percent of mothers and 70 percent of fathers reported preferential treatment toward one child. This isn’t surprising, as personalities, shifting life circumstances, and a slew of other factors impact how we feel about the people in our life, meaning there will be seasons when we enjoy spending time with some people more than others — and our children aren’t immune to this.
While you probably love all your children so much you’d die for them, that doesn’t mean you equally enjoy spending time with all of them. For example, you might have an adorable baby who can’t talk back, a four-year-old who worships the ground you walk on, and a teenager who primarily communicates with eye rolls. Not surprisingly, you’d probably prefer to hang with the little ones. Even if your children are close in age, you’ll likely still have your “favorite.” Like if the two-year-old has intense emotions that trigger you, and your baby is super mellow, you’ll probably favor the baby. There is nothing wrong with any of this. You can love all your children unconditionally while not liking them equally.
Something else to consider is that your older child might be feeling especially “needy” right now. They can sense that your focus has shifted, and they want your attention. Many children, even older ones, often seek this attention by acting out of character or creating disturbances. Essentially, they create circumstances that force you to pay attention to them. And because sleep deprivation and the endless needs of a newborn make it hard to recognize the deeper meaning of these outbursts, it’s easy to lash out and create even more of a divide between you and your child. This will probably resolve itself as your family settles into its new structure, but in the meantime, you can call on your partner or other adults close to your older child to spend more time with them. You can also ask these adults to take the baby for short stints so you can spend one-on-one time with your firstborn, even if it’s the last thing you want to do. (No judgment!)
It’s also important to remember that your favor may shift as you and your children change. As life continues molding your family, you might find that one child’s irritating traits are dissolving, while your “favorite” child begins getting under your skin. And remember, that preverbal baby will eventually find their voice, and it’s anyone’s guess how you’ll respond to what they have to say. Isn’t parenthood exciting?!
What to do
Keep reminding yourself that while it’s totally normal to like one child more than the other, it’s still important to not engage in differential treatment (aka treating one child better than the other) and to continually ensure that all your children know how loved they are. These activities can help you do that:
Examine what bugs you about the child you don’t like as much. It can feel really icky to not know why you don’t like one of your children as much as the other. This not-knowing can lead you to believe you’re a bad mom, cold hearted, or just destined to have a tumultuous relationship with that child. I don’t think any of that is true. I’ll bet there are specific reasons why certain things about your child trigger you. Let’s figure out what they are.
When you find yourself inwardly (or outwardly) rolling your eyes at this child or gritting your teeth, notice that. Press pause and objectively look at what’s happening. What about this moment is irritating you? Is your child responding to something in the same way your partner does, a way that you wish they didn’t? Are they responding in the opposite way that you would, and that’s triggering? Does their behavior remind you of someone you don’t like, and that dislike is being reflected onto your child? Does their behavior remind you of flaws in yourself you want to avoid? Is your child acting needy in a moment where you feel stretched thin? Unravel the situation until you figure out what the core source of your annoyance is.
Developing this deeper understanding about your child and how you respond to them will support you with the upcoming activities, and help you realize that neither of you have a fatal flaw or are intentionally trying to irritate one another. You’re both just doing your best to feel loved, seen, and heard as your family adapts to the big changes brought on by a new baby.
Create intentional opportunities to bond with your not-the-favorite child. Now that you’ve started pinpointing why your child irks you, brainstorm activities you can do together that have the lowest potential for irritation. For example, snuggling on the couch and watching a movie, making a smoothie, or building a LEGO tower might be situations that allow you to be together without getting peeved with each other. When it’s time to do activities like cleaning up, brushing teeth, getting dressed, or other tasks that typically find you and your child clashing, you could tap out and call in your partner, at least while you have a newborn. While this won’t always be possible, being aware of situations that typically cause you to get frustrated with your child, having another adult take on these situations, and investing time in the activities that are usually harmonious can begin shifting your parent-child relationship.
Talk with your partner. If you have a partner in this parenting thing, they can help you see your relationships with your children more clearly. They likely witness your interactions with the kids more than any other adult and can support you in identifying dynamics you’re not aware of, or easing up when you’re too hard on yourself. For example, they can let you know if your actions make your favoritism clear, and if you’re overly harsh with the child that’s bugging you. They can also help you make a plan for how the two of you can provide all the children equal care and attention, which might look like them picking up the slack with the child who’s frustrating you, making sure they don’t feel neglected.
Help your kids feel emotionally safe. If you sense the child you don’t favor as much is picking up on your energy, remind them how much you love them and let them know what’s going on — in an age-appropriate way. For example, my friend Amy has an eleven-year-old son who really irritates her. “He is me in a little boy’s body,” she said. “He’s constantly showing me all the things I don’t like about myself, and I have no patience for it.” Her daughter, on the other hand, has a temperament similar to Amy’s husband’s. “She’s so easy to be with,” Amy said. “Sometimes when I’m spending time with her in the morning and her brother wakes up, I feel angry. I feel like he’s going to ruin my mood before he even does anything.”
Needless to say, Amy was wracked with guilt about this, especially when her son straight up asked, “Mom, why don’t you like me?” Amy was inclined to tell him all the things that would make him feel better, but she decided that would only mask the problem. Instead, she told him that because he was so much like her, he sometimes reminded her of things in herself she wanted to change. She told him it wasn’t fair to take this out on him, and asked him to let her know when she was being unkind. He now says, “Mom, are you seeing you in me?” when he senses that he’s bugging her.
If Amy’s son had been younger, she probably wouldn’t have gone into the whole “You remind me of me” thing, as he might not have been able to process that. Instead, she could have acknowledged his feelings, asked questions to get more insight into what was making him feel unliked, and then assured him that things would change.
Above all, stay aware of how you’re treating each child so you can avoid hurting anyone, glean insights into how to improve these relationships, and tune into your children so you can tell when they are in need of reassurance that you love them deeply.