What can parents do when grandparents play favourites


Dear Adele,

Our children have overall, wonderful grandparents who love them dearly. We are sincerely grateful for this. However, one grandmother seems to favour one of our children more than the others. Her gifts for him are just a little bit nicer, her attendance at his sporting events is just a little more frequent, and her statements of admiration for him are just a little bit warmer and more effusive. We notice it and worry that our other children are noticing it too. Just how common is this problem, how damaging is it, and what ideas do you have for us to rectify it?

Noticing the Favouritism


Dear Noticing the Favouritism,

The Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association defines favouritism as “the intentional or unintentional preferential treatment of an individual or group of persons.” Unfortunately, favouritism is a relatively common problem in families and extended families. One child may be more attractive than another in appearance or in personality. Another child may be better behaved and easier to manage. Yet another might be a specific gender or born in a preferred order within the family. Once in a while, a child may have a special need physically or mentally that requires extra time and attention. Characteristics like this can be the reason that one child is preferred over another in a specific family.

A study by Shebloski, Conger and Widaman at the University of California found that 65 per cent of mothers had a favourite child and 70 per cent of fathers had a favourite child. Karl Pilemer at Cornell University found that 70 per cent of mothers had a favourite child even after adulthood. Jeffrey Kluger, author of ‘The Sibling Effect: What the bonds among brothers and sisters reveal about us,’ writes “It is my belief that 95 per cent of the parents in the world have a favourite child and the other 5 per cent are lying,”

It is not surprising then, that you are noticing some preferential treatment towards one of your children by a grandparent. It is at its worst when love and support are rarely felt. Unfortunately, such favouritism creates intrafamily conflicts and weakens relationships between the children and the extended family. Interestingly enough, both the favoured child and the unfavoured children are more likely to show depressive symptoms when they grow up than children who grow in families where fairness is the norm. Favoured children can also develop anger or behavioural problems, a lack of confidence or refuse to interact with others in a positive way. The unfavoured children may get very angry at parents or grandparents. Sometimes the anger gets displaced on the favoured child and these negative feelings can last a lifetime.

So of course, you want to do something about this favouritism and still try to maintain positive relationships with the grandparent involved. Let me give you a few ideas which might be helpful in handling this parenting challenge.

  • Offer the unfavoured children love, support, and time that should come from the grandparent.
  • Call a group meeting to discuss the topic. Ensure that communication is open and that the grandparents understand that you want the children treated fairly.
  • Privately make the grandparent aware of the real or perceived favouritism.
  • Spend family time without the conflict producing person present more often.
  • Boost attention to the unique characteristics of each of your children especially middle born kids.
  • Build new traditions that do not involve toxic relatives so often.
  • Ask grandparents to spend equal amounts of time with your children.
  • Ask grandparents to spend equal amounts of money on your children.
  • Ask grandparents to avoid setting your children up to compete.
  • Ask grandparents to avoid expecting one child to set an example.
  • Ask grandparents to avoid taking sides in fights or arguments.
  • Ask grandparents to avoid comparing your children.
  • Ask grandparents to avoid putting themselves in the position of judging whether one child is better than another at anything.
  • Block out similar amounts of one-on-one time for each child with the grandparent.
  • Limit contact time for your children with the offending grandparent if she fails to try to improve in treating all the children fairly.
  • Rationally explain to all the children any legitimate need of one of the children, which requires more attention.
  • Request that other relatives and friends provide extra attention and affirmation to the unfavoured child or children.
  • Accept that families are imperfect while trying to create a legacy of fairness in your family as much is possible.
  • Work as a team, with both parents dealing with the grandparents and children.
  • Seek the assistance of an experienced therapist for the children and your family.

I wish you well Noticing the Favouritism. I will conclude with a few inspirational quotations on this topic.

You can’t force family to be there for your children or even take an interest in them. All you can do is love them enough that they don’t need anyone else.” — Unknown

Playing favourites is always a bad thing; you can do great harm in seemingly harmless ways.” — Proverbs 28:21

Blessed are those who spoil and snuggle, hug and hope, pray and pamper, for they shall be called grandparents.” — Unknown

Sincerely, Adele

I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at maryadeleblair@gmail.com and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.

Photo: Isaac Quesada on Unsplash