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I wasn’t exactly surprised when, amid a recent disagreement, my 11-year-old son expressed his annoyance by telling me that he thinks I love his younger sister more than him. This is a pretty common step that most parents hear at some point, and I certainly remember breaking it at least a couple of times when I wasn’t getting the attention I wanted from my mom.

But after the obligatory “Oh, that’s ridiculous!” With which most parents are likely to reflexively respond when confronted with this familiar scenario, I thought about it again later. Is he right? Do I play favorites?

Obviously, I don’t love one of my children any more than the other. But his sister and I have similar temperaments and a similar sense of humor. Is it possible that I unwittingly send him a message that I have a favorite child? If so, what can I do to fix it?

“When children say things like this, it’s mostly about attention, be it emotional or physical,” says Loretta Rudd, project leader, clinical associate professor and program coordinator for child development and family studies at the University of Memphis.

The consequences of neglecting claims of favoritism can negatively affect children later in life. Psychology Today points out that “disadvantaged children” may be exposed to a higher risk of depression, substance abuse, greater aggressiveness or poor academic performance, among other things. Healthline also takes notes that preference doesn’t have to be real – the simple perception that they are the least favored child can lead to similar negative consequences later in life.

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The good news is that, in most cases, parents can easily use healthy communication habits to turn allegations of favoritism into educational moments.

Explain how age differences mean differences in responsibilities

One easy way that differences in rules governing siblings can manifest themselves in allegations of favoritism is to give an older child more privileges. Older children can stay up longer, have more freedom to talk to or see friends, watch shows or games on more mature topics, or engage in other activities with less strict parental supervision.

When younger siblings become aware of this and believe that parenting bias or preference is the cause, it is important to explain the additional responsibilities that usually come with those privileges.

“Perhaps there are social norms that the older child adopts first,” says Rudd. “So they get something that the younger child doesn’t have. But if you can explain that to them when they get there [developmentally], you will have the opportunity. You can’t promise them they’ll get it, but only explain that privileges come responsibility and be really clear and frank [is best]. ”

Since younger children are attention-grabbing, teaching about responsibility can be reinforced with them when they ask to do something. For example, if we say we can play a game or go on a bike ride after the kitchen is clean, we can subtly teach them that sometimes fun or privilege requires doing less fun tasks first.

There are also moments when children simply need to be treated differently. The conversation notes that sometimes a sibling is ill, injured, has special needs, or there are other circumstances that might cause parents to treat a child differently. These reasons should be discussed with age-appropriate transparency.

If parents have such a level of transparency in their communication with children at a younger age, it will pay off as they age.

“It’s really about doing the hard work when they’re young,” says Rudd. “If you help them develop this emotional regulation and social skills when they are in early childhood (0-4), it will be easier for you. That’s not to say it’ll go smoothly in your teens or teenagers, but it gets easier when you take the time to talk about it. ”

Recognize and appreciate the differences in your children

It can be pretty easy to spot obvious differences in the personalities of several children. However, understanding the individual needs that create these differences can be a little more difficult.

At a young age, when toddlers do not have the words to explain when they are jealous or not getting the attention they want or need, parents can show all of their children through physical interaction and attention that they are loved words for To express love.

“When they’re toddlers, it’s really about physical and emotional attachment,” says Rudd. “Usually they didn’t have the words to say, ‘You like him better than me.’ But they’ll do things like grabbing or hitting or clinging to mom or dad. It’s really about explaining to children in words that you love them both. ”

As you get older, these conversations can become more detailed. Parents can single out or narrow down certain aspects of their children’s personality or traits and show that they are aware of their unique identity.

“You tell them that you love them because of their individual characteristics,” says Rudd. “A lot is the parents’ willingness to find the time and energy to use words and really just to speak openly.”

Find individual time for each child

For busy families, especially larger families, it can be daunting to plan individual time for each child. Note, however, that these attention needs are not always the same.

“Sometimes one person in the family needs more attention than another at one point,” says Rudd. “It doesn’t have to be every day. If you can do that, it would be ideal, but if not, just pick one day a week for a walk with one or the other parent. ”

Rudd uses bedtime as an example to take a few minutes with each child just to check in. Another important aspect that parents should be aware of is that children’s interests will change quickly. So being flexible in how you spend this individual time with them is also key.

“Parents cannot assume that they like ballet just because they were in elementary school, for example, that they like it in middle school,” says Rudd. “It’s more than likely that your interests will change, so it’s important to be prepared for that.”

Model good communication habits yourself

The best parents can do is healthy communication in their relationships with their children and with other adults. Children observe, observe and model behaviors and tactics, regardless of whether they are healthy or negative.

“The phrase ‘children learn what they live’ – it’s so true,” says Rudd. “So if parents can handle their emotions and have good emotional regulation and the ability to express very strong feelings in an appropriate way, children watch it. They watch how parents deal with conflict and see when we do a lousy job so do you. ”