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Author Ellen Weber Libby

Dec 08, 2010 10:53PM, Published by Anonymous, Categories: Community




Enter the favorite child, explained by clinical psychologist Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D. in her book The Favorite Child, recently published by Prometheus Books. Libby, who lives in Annapolis, has been seeing patients in her Bethesda office for over 30 years and she has observed the effects of parental favoritism in the adult behavior of their progeny.

In her 302-page book, Libby explores the effects on the entire family when one child is given preferential treatment over another. Using anecdotal examples, Libby takes the reader through various scenarios.


While Libby writes that favoritism is not inherently good or bad, she does note that, “How parents relate to each other around the issue of favoritism is critical in determining the potential consequences of favoritism within the family.” She warns that being a favored child can also provide a sense of entitlement that leads individuals to twist the truth to serve their own purposes.


(Incidentally, the author’s brother-in-law is I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former Chief of Staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney who, as she points out in the book, was ultimately found guilty of obstructing justice, lying to the FBI, and perjury.)


Interviewed on numerous national and regional radio programs and featured as a guest on the CBS Early Show, we recently had the opportunity to catch up with Ellen (or Ellie as she prefers being called) and ask a few questions of our own.

WU: In your family, were you the favorite child?


Ellen Libby: I was my father’s favorite daughter, and I loved our attachment. But, it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to be my mother’s favorite child, as well, a goal I never accomplished. It wasn’t until I was about 40 that I accepted the impossibility of that goal. My brother, Richard, was her favorite child and held that status from his birth until her death.

WU: What can parents do to help them identify whether they are strongly favoring one child above the others in their family?


EL: Because the process of the favorite child complex is largely unconscious, adults often don’t acknowledge which child is favored. Parents confuse love with favoritism. Parents can love all their children equally, meaning parents can have tender, affectionate feelings and be loyal to each child. But, that does not mean that parents do not treat the child who is most affirming to them preferentially. In my experience, parents usually do not see themselves as offering one child preferential treatment over the others, and if they do, parents seldom grasp that they do so because that child has made the parent feel good!

Parents can become more aware of their preferential treatment by first accepting that having a favorite child is normal. No two children are alike so it is impossible to respond to any two children identically. And, of course, we all give preference to the child who makes us feel better about ourselves, who is more affirming of our parenting skills. A parent’s goal should be to feel less defensive about having favorites, more open to its inevitability.

Also, and very important, our children tell us all the time who we favor. What is critical is that we be able to hear them and not feel as if we have to rush to defend ourselves.

WU: Does the pattern of favoring a particular birth order or gender tend to be repeated in families?


EL: Birth order or gender as a basis of favoritism, I think, is related to family history. First, there can be cultural derivatives, i.e, the role of oldest son in an Italian, Irish, or Jewish family. Second, often unknowingly, parents reenact their legacy. I talk about this at length in my book. One man at a young age was abandoned by his mother and grew up attached to his father. When this young man became an adult, he married a woman whom he could easily dominate and substituted his son for her as his emotional intimate. Now, the son, as an adult, struggles not to reenact his family history.

WU: How would you recommend parents work together to provide a nurturing and balanced environment when they do realize they are “playing favorites?”

EL: Adults working together, whether it is two parents in a traditional family or a blended family, are crucial in mitigating the negative repercussions of favoritism. The answer is not for one adult to be indulgent and the other strict but for one parent to provide the other with support to be more evenhanded in the treatment of the favorite child and the other children as well. On an NPR interview, one mother called in acknowledging that both she and her husband preferred one child over their other, one child was responsive, cooperative, and loving while the other child was defiant, uncooperative, and easily angered. What to do? Her concern about HER treatment of her less favored child suggested that she did truly love both her children equally. What she could do is try to become more conscious, and then more creative about how she expressed her love to her more challenging child. For example, she might declare “special time” only for him and allow him to eat dessert before dinner. Or, offer to do his chore of clearing dishes off the table on a given night, and when asked why, “Just because I love you and wanted to do something special.”

WU: You’ve been on a number of national television and radio programs and must have received many interesting questions. What are some of the topics and questions you’ve found more revealing?

EL: What has most delighted me is that as I talk about the favorite child complex, people freely start talking about themselves. When interviewed by Harry Smith on the CBS Morning Show, even he immediately related to the subject and started talking about himself and his family! Over the air, many people have courageously exposed troublesome feelings generated by the topic.

One listener called in to a radio show to talk about his bind: he was a professionally successful gay man who had grown up as the favorite child. He had not come out to his parents because he knew the risk great that he would lose his status as the favorite child. He didn’t know if he could live without that status and he knew that he couldn’t live with himself if he pretended to be someone that he wasn’t in their presence. This man understood well his struggle, and his language, “I couldn’t live with (my)self…” suggested to me he knew what he needed to do. So, I supported his taking the time he needed to become more comfortable before acting on the decision he had probably already made. Also, I encouraged him to consider that while his achievements may have been fostered by his status, the successes and skills he had achieved were his – regardless of his status.

Another listener, a father, called in to another talk show expressing his dismay that two of his children resented the favoritism he conveyed to his third, a child with special needs; he feared his favoritism was isolating the child with special needs from the siblings. Children with special needs do present unique issues for families. This father’s honesty, his willingness to validate the perceptions of his other children, was an important first step in the reconciliation process. I encouraged him to continue family conversations, maybe with the help of a trusted outsider – a clergyman, teacher, or therapist. He needs to do all that he can to help insure that feelings do not go underground, that family members remain comfortable in expressing their own truths in a respectful environment. Out of respectful dialogues, acceptance and reconciliation can emerge.

A third listener was the spouse of a marine who was returning after a lengthy deployment in Afghanistan. In her husband’s absence, their oldest son became her emotional companion, her favorite child. She was apprehensive about how her husband would be reintegrated in to the family. This woman was wise. The issues of reintegrating her husband are profound, and the potential for conflict, whether it is expressed or not, between her husband and son is high. I encouraged her to seek assistance from a family support centered sponsored by the military.

WU: Your book utilizes the wisdom and experience you have gained as a practicing psychologist over a 30 year period. Has there ever been a scientific study conducted that identifies particular traits associated with children who were favored by their parents? If not, would you like to see such a study take place and what would you particularly want to investigate further?

EL: Scientist and clinicians generally agree that observational studies, such as those generating the favorite child complex, help steer scientific research. To my knowledge, The Favorite Child is the first broad examination of the potential negative effects of inappropriate parent-child attachment on that child as well as all family members. It would be thrilling for me if people with research skills, more sophisticated than mine, would extrapolate factors in pursuit of stronger understanding of the favorite child complex. Would I like to be involved in that research? I would love to consult but know to leave the hard work of top notch scientific investigation to people more skilled than me.


WU: What impact can be realized by another adult mentor, such as a doting grandmother or uncle, in the life of a child who is not the favorite? In your practice have you noted instances in which another figure has helped bolster the confidence of the less favored child?



EL: Many children who were not favored have been emotionally rescued by grandparents, aunts, uncles, coaches, or teachers. So yes, most definitely, loving surrogates who take the next step – to make an overlooked child feel chosen for preferential treatment - help to ameliorate the potential pain experienced by the overlooked child. In my book, The Favorite Child, I write about an overlooked child who had mastered the art of staying in the background. He was taken under-wing by a teacher in middle school who suggested he try out for the cheerleading squad. He did; he made the squad; he enjoyed the attention of being a cheerleader. Now, as an adult in his eighties, he believes that this teacher – who selected him out of all the other students to guide, encourage, and support him – changed his life.

WU: How frequently does “favored” status tend to shift in a family or is it more likely to remain constant?


EL: I don’t know the frequency with which favoritism is rotated among children or if it is likely to remain constant. I suspect that favoritism is more likely to be rotated among the children in families where the parent is receptive to the feedback of a trusted other person.

WU: Is it too late, once children become adults, for parents to reconcile their favoritism?

EL:
Because the process of the favorite child complex is largely unconscious, adults often don’t acknowledge which child is favored. Parents confuse love with favoritism. Parents can love all their children equally, meaning parents can have tender, affectionate feelings and be loyal to each child. But, that does not mean that parents do not treat the child who is most affirming to them preferentially. In my experience, parents usually do not see themselves as offering one child preferential treatment over the others, and if they do, parents seldom grasp that they do so because that child has made the parent feel good!

Parents can become more aware of their preferential treatment by first accepting that having a favorite child is normal. No two children are alike so it is impossible to respond to any two children identically. And, of course, we all give preference to the child who makes us feel better about ourselves, who is more affirming of our parenting skills. Second, shame cuts off openness within ourselves and with others, making us more defensive. The goal is to feel less defensive about having favorites, more open to its inevitability. Third, as a parent feels less defensive, he or she can be potentially more open to that trusted other adult, the watchful eye, who observes us as we can’t see ourselves, who calls to our attention our preferential treatment of one child over the others.

Also, and very important, our children tell us all the time who we favor. What is critical is that we be able to hear them and not feel as if we have to rush to defend ourselves.

As adults, the question of reconciliation is interesting. The first question is “With whom?” Reconciliation between an adult and parent, when initiated by the adult child, is not likely. That parent has lived their life the way they have lived it and change is not likely.

If the reconciliation is initiated by the parent, then change is more likely. A few years ago, an elderly European woman came to the DC area to reconcile with her adult son who lived there. She did not want to die feeling guilty about her treatment of him or estranged from him. She stayed for about six months and I worked with this mother and son, as well as the son’s wife, doing family therapy regularly. The mother accomplished her goals.

More common, adult children will reconcile within themselves their feelings regarding whether or not they were chosen for favorite child status. I recently spoke to a 62 year-old woman who resented her estrangement from her siblings, which was based in her father’s having favored her and never having made the other children feel special. I suggested to her that most likely his favoring her and being oblivious to the specialness of the other children had more to do with him and his unmet needs than with her. She was an innocent player in his drama of life. To heal herself required that she accept her initial innocence and grow to appreciate how her father used her to satisfy his needs. To the degree that her siblings could be receptive to reconciling with her, they, too, might grow to understand how their father used her and the cost to everyone in the family, even her.




 



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