“The Favorite Child”: Ellen Weber Libby Explains This Complex

We’ve all heard the refrain, “I love all my kids equally.” But, children know the truth. They get the subtle, and not so subtle, message. They know favoritism exists, that at any moment in time Mom might choose one child over another. It’s impossible for it to be otherwise. Every child is different and every parent is different, relating to each other uniquely. This idiosyncratic relationship leads to preferences. Having a favorite and wanting to be the one chosen as the favorite—either Mom’s or Dad’s—is a normal feeling, reaction, and wish. Ellen Weber Libby, author of The Favorite Child, in Psychology Today

Ellen Weber Libby‘s clinical practice as a psychologist in Washington D.C. has given her lots of experience with the phenomenon of “favorite child complex,” a term she coined. She sees both the pros and cons of this type of family-conferred status and writes about this regularly.

And in her 2010 book The Favorite Child she goes into detail about the experiences of those holding this particular status. States the publisher:

In a series of chapters that offer insightful vignettes from actual therapy sessions (the identities of clients carefully disguised), Dr Libby explores why parents, consciously or unconsciously, choose a favourite child as well as the long-term effects of being the favourite son or daughter of either or both parents. She also discusses family situations where parents have successfully made each of their children feel favoured and have instilled in their children a healthy emotional balance. She details parental skills and family processes that increase the likelihood of this type of success and that, most importantly, reduce the risk of the favourite child’s curse – power corrupted.

In brief, when there is fluidity and different kids are favored at different times for different reasons, it can be healthy for all involved. But many of the other possible dynamics aren’t so helpful.

Why might a child be favored? “Ultimately favorite children are those who make parents feel most competent and most successful, who best reflect on the parents,” says Libby on Psychology Today. Of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that sounds.

Some of the advantages of favoritism for the child in question:

  • Allows development of personal power skills
  • Evolution of confidence
  • Focus and determination are often developed
  • Goal orientation and success at achieving goals is common

Some of the disadvantages:

  • Might escape consequences that other kids don’t
  • A tendency to learn to stretch or spin the truth
  • A tendency to manipulate the parent perceived as the powerful one
  • May not learn consistent lessons about their actions’ consequences
  • May lack awareness of the effect of their actions on others

The unfavored child, actually, can also experience advantages (from another post on Psychology Today):

  • More freedom to individuate and create one’s own goals and dreams
  • More focus on self-care (versus caretaking others) is developed in childhood
  • Learns how to function in the outside world where there are consequences for unacceptable behaviors

Below Libby introduces her book:

Dr. Howard Halpern, author : “What Libby has done is long overdue. She has developed and expanded on the favorite child complex, a subject that the literature has not given sufficient attention to. The Favorite Child is an invaluable addition to both therapists and lay readers understanding of an important component of personality development within the family structure. This book is a must read for all those interested in the growth of healthy, productive children.”

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