Lesson 5 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance family

Resolve Favoritism Conflicts
Among Family Members

Confront loyalty conflicts
and relationship triangles

by Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/fam/favoritism.htm

Updated  03-14-2015

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      This is one of a series of Lesson-5 articles on evolving a high-nurturance (functional) family. The series exists because the wide range of current social problems around the world suggests that most families don't fill their members' needs (nurture)  very well.

      This article proposes options for responding to relatives showing favoritism to certain family members. The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 5 (or 7, if you're in a stepfamily)

  • What's unique about family relationships

  • Options for managing loyalty conflicts and significant family disapproval

      This brief YouTube video provides perspective on toxic relationships:

 What's the Problem?

      Do you have a "best friend"? A special aunt, sibling, or cousin? If you're a parent of two or more kids, do you favor (like, appreciate, enjoy, approve of) one more than another? Average adults and kids naturally grow such preferences for some family members over others, depending on their personalities, history, common likes and values, mutual needs, and other factors.  

       Family favoritisms range from mild and affectionate to harsh and shaming. They may be denied, justified, ignored, joked about, or deplored by various family members.

      This article focuses on family favoritism that causes one or more adults or kids significant shame, frustration, hurt, guilt, resentment, and/or anger. You may feel "second best," or you may feel protective about another member who is treated as inferior. The extreme case is some relatives dubbing  a family member a "black sheep," and shaming, shunning, and disowning her or him. 

      In cases of major favoritism, a related problem may be that family members become polarized (split) into two or more groups - pro and anti-favoritism alliances, and perhaps others who scorn both camps.


      Family favoritism can manifest in many ways:

  • giving cards or gifts to some family members but not others, or giving expensive gifts to favorite people, and token gifts to others;

  • inviting some relatives to family events but not others;

  • not calling or emailing, or not returning them;

  • critical gossip and disparagement to neutral family members;

  • not speaking to a relative in social gatherings, or being "distant," polite. uncaring, and superficial (dishonest);

  • avoiding eye contact with some people, not others;

  • lecturing, preaching, interrupting, and/or moralizing, - ''talking down'' to a relative, not listening or conversing;

  • avoiding honest confrontation about differences and resentments;

  • rudeness (disrespect), tardiness, and unkept promises (disrespect); and...

  • body and facial language conveying an attitude of superiority, pity, disinterest; and/or disapproval.

  • (add your own examples)

      Have you ever experienced any of these? Done any of them? If so, how did you feel? What did you need?

Divorce and Re/marriage

      Family favoritisms may be caused or amplified by parental divorce and re/marriage. For example, relatives may "feel sorry" for a divorced parent and/or their kids, and give them more attention and support than married adult siblings and kids. That can also work in the opposite way - avoiding divorce discomforts by reducing contact with certain relatives.

      Relatives who have bonded with adult-kids' ex mate and/or their in-laws may favor them over a new mate and his/her kinfolk. They may also favor genetic kids over stepkids. Biosiblings may prefer each other to stepsiblings, or vice versa..

      Bottom line - family favoritisms come in many varieties and can have several origins. Two key problems they can cause are (1) excessive shame, hurt, resentment, and anger in one or more family members, and (2) split loyalties that lower the family's unity and nurturance level.

      If either of these are stressing you now, what can you do?

 If You are Disfavored

      If a parent, grandparent, sibling, or other relative treats other family members better than you, there may be several surface reasons:

  • you've done something that offends or scares them, and (a) they haven't told you, or (b)  they told you but you haven't resolved this together; and/or...

  • they disapprove of something about you, and you're not willing or able to resolve this values conflict together; and/or...

  • the relative's feel disrespected or disliked by you, and aren't willing to confront you on that; and/or...

  • your existence causes them shame and/or guilt for some reason - e.g. you were not a wanted conception, or your parents abandoned, neglected, and/or abused you.  

      These are surface problems. The underlying primary problems are that you and/or your relative/s...

  • inherited psychological wounds, and you all don't know that, what it means, and what to do about it. {unawareness}; and one or more of you...

  • may not have finished grieving some important losses, and don't know that or how to finish it; and/or...

  • you don't know how to (a) manage significant values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles, and/or how to (b) do win-win problem-solving together.

      Once you're aware of these root problems, you can reduce your half of them via the options below As you do, you can invite your relatives to do the same.

      The other problem you may experience is...

 If Someone You Care About is Disfavored

      If some relatives discount your mate, child/ren, sibling/s, parent/s, or other close kin, you'll probably...

  • feel caught "in the middle" of one or more loyalty conflicts,

  • choose the "Rescuer" role in one or more relationship triangles; and...

  • have one or more significant values conflicts with your disrespectful relative/s.

      Once again, these are each surface problems cause by the three underlying primary problems above - psychological wounds + unfinished grief + ineffective communication. What can you do about them?


       As with most personal and social problems, start by assessing yourself for psychological wounds. Protective false selves controlling you can contribute to your "family favoritism problems" in many ways. If you are a Grown Wounded Child (GWC), Lesson 1 shows you how to reduce your wounds and free your true Self to guide you.

      Next, assess the relative/s who are "playing favorites" for significant psychological wounds. If they are GWCs, they may be shame-based or fear-based, and be distorting reality without knowing it. Choose among these options to relate to wounded parents and other kinfolk.

      Plan a respectful two-part confrontation with each relative who seems to be playing favorites. First, when they're undistracted, ask respectfully if you (or the other family member) have offended them in some way. GWCs may or may not give you an honest answer. If you get "yes," avoid explaining and defending and getting into a debate or fight. Just listen, acknowledge what you hear, and - if warranted - consider apologizing.

      Second, identify specifically what you need from your judgmental relative, choose a mutual-respect attitude, assert your need/s and any consequences one at a time, simply and directly. Expect resistance, specially from GWCs.

Assertion Guidelines:

  • key - keep your true Self in charge.

  • evolve and use a Bill of Personal Rights like this example. Authorize yourself to ask or demand what you need, regardless of differences in age, gender, experience, or family "rank."

  • if you feel significant anxiety and/or guilt  about asserting your needs and feelings, follow the links for options.

  • don't expect relatives to change their values or their personality. Focus on their awareness and behavior;

  • avoid lose-lose shaming, blaming, name-calling, hinting, apologizing, preaching, and guilt-tripping. Be clear, simple, and direct in your assertion, and maintain steady eye contact.

  • avoid Be Spontaneous! paradoxes (e.g. I want you to want to respect me more!) They'll increase everyone's stress!

  • apply these options for resolving values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles to your situation. You probably have several of these stressors concurrently. If so, sort and prioritize them, and deal with them one at a time;

      More assertion guidelines...

  • study and apply these ideas on analyzing and resolving most relationship problems as appropriate. Keep in mind that your relatives' dignity, needs, and feelings are just as legitimate as yours!

  • learn these options for improving your communication effectiveness with adults and kids, and apply them as appropriate.

  • Scan these response options to see if any of them fit your target relative/s.

  • if you're supporting a disfavored family member other than a young child, avoid speaking for and enabling her or him. Encourage the person to assert their own feelings, needs, and boundaries respectfully to the target relative/s. If you're reluctant or uneasy with this, assess yourself for codependence (a symptom of psychological wounds). If your person has trouble asserting, s/he may be a GWC.

  • Keep these ageless wisdoms in mind as you decide what to do before and after asserting.

  • If your target relative/s are receptive and agree to cooperate with your assertion, thank them and appreciate your Self!

      Finally, if your relative/s agree to reduce or end their favoritism, follow up. If they don't make an honest effort, repeat these steps for your own integrity and self-respect. If you keep those prizes, your efforts are successful regardless of your relative's reactions.

      Notice how you feel about these options and guidelines. How do they compare with how you've been reacting to family favoritism? Does your old strategy get your needs met well enough? Is there anything in the way of your trying the options above? Is your true Self answering these questions?


      This Lesson-5 article proposes several options for managing family favoritism. -- one or more members being treated "better" than others by some relatives. The article describes common surface problems from favoritism, and proposes several specific steps you can take to reduce your half of three primary problems: psychological wounds, incomplete grief, and an inability to manage significant values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles,

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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