The perception that a parent favours one sibling over another is very powerful. It can wreck siblings' relationships when they are kids, and where it carries over into adult life, it can wreck those relationships, too.
Take 35-year-old Jonathan and his 33-year-old sister, Lisa. Talking on the phone before a family gathering recently, they had this exchange. "Lisa, Dad's moving the dinner time back to 7:30 so Rachel and I can get there before the meal starts."
"But that makes it really inconvenient for me. He always does this for you. He never takes my schedule into account."
"That's not true, Lisa. It's the only way I can get there on time."
"Yes it is, it's always like this. I still remember when we were little – the time that it was incredibly hot and Dad didn't have much money with him and we stopped at a Ready and Go and he got a big drink for you and only a medium for me. Everything for his precious Jonathan. And you love it. Don't say you don't." Lisa abruptly terminated the call. And she didn't go to dinner at her father's.
And indeed, as so frequently had happened in the past, the perceived favouritism created yet another rift between brother and sister in their overall tenuous relationship.
Not all childhood sibling rivalries turn into adult bitterness, but many do. An ongoing family legend of childhood favouritism – real or imagined – can poison what otherwise could have been a supportive adult friendship.
"Face it, Jonathan. Dad always liked you better."
"Grow up, Lisa."
So if you're the parent of currently squabbling teens who often proclaim the injustice of favouritism, is there anything you can do to prevent those complaints from turning into future adult discord?
The answer is "yes." While it may not offer 100-per-cent protection, there is a useful inoculation.
Obviously, you want to be fair. But total fairness is unobtainable. You can't keep track of everything. And sometimes, in any given instance, you may inadvertently favour one over the other. We are only human. Besides, despite the most rigorous parental attempts at perfect fairness, your children will see favouritism regardless.
"Dad, just look at the way you smile when Jonathan talks. You barely ever smile at anything I say."
If one or more of your kids accuses you of favouritism, have a little talk with your accuser. Have the talk more than once. And always with just one teen at a time. Don't try to address the problem right at that moment. Such talk always ends up revolving around whether you were unfair or not in that specific instance. Your discussion should be about the overall relationship between you and them.
"Do you really feel that I favour Jonathan?"
"Yes, I do. And you never see it."
"I'm sorry you feel that way, but I just want you to know that I love both of you a lot. I do try not to favour either of you."
"Well, you don't do a good job because you always favour Jonathan."
"All I know is that I always try to be fair with both of you. I'm not always going to succeed. But I will do my best."
You are not trying to convince them that you do not favour their sibling. You are not arguing with their contention. You just want them to know – whether they believe you or not – that you hear them and that you will try to be fair in the future. And that's all you do. And as I said, you have the talks regularly. Just so they know.
What does this accomplish? If you are genuine in what you say, it gives them a sense of connection with you. Which above all is what they are after. It may not sound like much, but it is.
"Dad does seem to love me. I'm not sure how much I really care about whether he got Jonathan the bigger drink at Ready and Go."
Talks like this can take a lot of the air out of their sense of injustice, and just maybe make for less bitterness in the future as well.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I'd Listen to My Parents if They'd Just Shut Up.