Michael J. Prince, B.A., Psychology


Positive Discipline

Dr. Vera Rabie-Azoory discusses his views on sibling rivalry and parental favoritism.

Family Wellness By Vera Rabie-Azoory , PhD Event Date: 06/06/2000.

The opinions expressed by Dr. Rabie-Azoory are hers and hers alone. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Today we are discussing "Sibling Rivalry: The Truth About the Family Favorite," with Vera Rabie-Azoory, PhD.

Rabie-Azoory is a psychologist with over 20 years experience in family counseling, assessment and supervision of families going through divorce, and family mediation. She has worked for several hospitals and social service agencies as well as conducting a private practice in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta. Dr. Rabie-Azoory received her baccalaureate at McGill University and earned her Master's and Doctoral degree in psychology at the University of Montreal. She resides in Toronto with her two children.

Dr. Rabie-Azoory, welcome.

Dr. Rabie-Azoory: Thank you. The first thing I'd like to say is that this is a very revolutionary point of view. Favoritism has never been looked upon as a serious issue in personality development. However, after having had my education, which was steeped in Freudianism and in behavioral theory, that is, reward and punishment techniques, I realized that confronted with children that I was raising, I couldn't use any of the techniques that I had learned in school to apply to reality. And so, through experience, I came to the conclusion that there was some kind of deeper conflict that was going on between my children that had never been explained to me before in my psychological studies and for which I could find no reason. And so, my explanation in time through observation turned to issues of favoritism and the children vying for attention from their prime love-giving adult, that is, from one parent who was seen as the more loving, caring, approachable, and warm parent. And so, I arrived at a model of family functioning which distinguishes between two parents, one being the more giving and easy-going and warm and relaxed parent, and the other being more demanding, probably more disciplining, and perhaps more detached. And that distinction, I must emphasize, has never been made in psychology before, that parents take on two different parenting roles, one being warmer and more approachable and the other being less approachable. The further part of the model has to do with the children where the children divide into divergent personality types, one being the more relaxed, easy-going, compliant and likable child to the parents, and one being less easy to like, either diverting their behavior into angry modes or anxiety-ridden modes of behavior or depressive modes of behavior. And I call the child who is more compliant and easy going the favored one, because adults tend to like those characteristics better, and the one who is more angry, anxious and depressed as the disfavored child. And that's never been done before in psychology.

It's never been recognized that there are two different personality types emerging from siblinghood, and that siblinghood determines those personality types more so than the parents' input. It's absolutely astounding, but what happened in history is that Freud took center stage and took our attention by focusing on sexuality and psychosexual stages of development. But Alfred Adler, at the same time, tried to put forth a theory of personality development based on sibling rivalry, but he was debunked by a rigorous and I should say vicious Freud who dominated the scene for the past century. So we're back to square one, the sexuality theory and behaviorism didn't work. It doesn't really engage the will of the child. It works with animals and lower species. But a human seems to have a will that you need to engage before getting them to behave positively.

The theory goes that if there are two siblings born next to each other, immediately they develop opposing or divergent personality types. You'll see that in any siblings who are born first and second. It's not about the birth order because the first born may be either favored or disfavored. And, equally, the second born can be either favored or disfavored.

I just remarried and my daughter became the middle child. How does birth order affect step families?

Dr. Rabie-Azoory: That's complicated. Now, you need to think this out carefully because there is a model. You have to decide who the primary care giver is for that child. If you are strongly connected to your daughter and she is your favored child, it doesn't really matter that much. There will be jealousies. There are more jealousies if the child starts out as a disfavored child. But, if she starts off as a favored child, close to her mother, that bond will not easily be disturbed in a new constellation, with a new family. If it is disturbed, she should bolster up her own daughter. Make her feel secure, reassure her. There's always upheaval when there's remarriage, so even a favored child probably needs to be reassured and some positive light put on the whole new situation in order to help her readjust to the new siblings that have come into the picture.

How can I avoid displaying favoritism, or at least minimize it?

Dr. Rabie-Azoory: You really have to dig into your own feelings for that. The reason why I called it favoritism -- there are a lot of people who reject that nomenclature, but it's favoritism because we fall into the pattern of favoring one child over the other. And, if you dig into your feelings you probably do like the child who is more docile, easy going and compliant. And, the more withdrawn or rebellious one is less easy to like and probably takes the disfavored position. You have to work with your feelings first and make yourself feel as much for your disfavored child as you do with the favored one. And recognize that the disfavored child's gripe and difficulty is dealing with his or her feeling of being a failure, or of holding a lesser position and status with the prime parent than the favored child. So that's the crux of their pain, and when you address that pain by giving them the respect and attention on the same level as you give to the favored child, you heal and soothe them and they come around better. So, you really have to work with yourself. It's not an easy task. But, they do come around, and when they come around, you gain more leverage because they begin to love you better. And, for the sake of loving you, they perform and behave better. It's when there's love that there is leverage developed and on that leverage the parent can start to work.

What characteristics in children are likely to make them more favored in their parents' eyes?

Dr. Rabie-Azoory: It's a circular thing, because once they feel more loved they are more relaxed and have better sense of humor, are likable to their friends and have more friends, and their teachers like them better. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. The better they behave, the more people like them and the better they behave. They're into a mode of positive reinforcement of feelings about life and they're happy, while the other child is envious seeing that happiness, wanting to attract attention in some kind of negative way. They usually choose negative ways because the other one is behaving in positive ways, and they establish their own self identity this way from their own sibling.

How can intelligence impact favoritism?

Dr. Rabie-Azoory: It does only insofar as the parent values intelligence. It's what we value that the children try to accommodate. Favoritism has to do with traits the child develops in themselves that please the adults. One trait may be verbal skills. If a girl, for example, has a lot of sweet talk and gentle words to use with us, that's pleasing and that's pleasant. And so, that does have to do with intelligence, but it's an encouragement in the environment also. If, on the other hand, we're pleased with a boy with a lot of mechanical abilities, that too is intelligence, but we encourage him by liking that and so he develops more and more of it. So, it's what we appreciate in intelligence. If we don't appreciate a child who is overly verbal or overly inquisitive, intrusive to our lives, asks too many questions and wants to know too much, challenges us or is mouthy is that sense, we don't like that. But, again, that's shrewdness and verbal capability, but the kind that we don't like. So, intelligence plays a role, but it could take a lot of different forms depending on how it strikes us as the parent.

I have fraternal twins, two girls. One has definite learning disabilities and is always second to her sister. How can I help her?

Dr. Rabie-Azoory: She's the follower and is looking up to her twin and is trying to compete, but has a sense of inadequacy in certain areas. Competition is natural, inborn and instinctual. What you can do about it is not to be pulled into, or sucked into their ploy to get you to like one better than the other. If you stand back and try to appreciate what each one has separately -- and, it's not an easy thing to do. It's not to say that you love each one in their own special way. That's just words. You have to be really careful to be honestly, inside yourself, internally impartial, to love what this one does and what that one does for their own sake. For example, if you have a creative child and you don't understand creativity -- the child wants to dye their hair different colors -- you have to try and appreciate that child's need to be creative and to express themselves creatively. Even though it makes a mess for you or upsets your lifestyle in some way, stand back and care for that child genuinely and love them for who they are. You'll find they'll tone down after that, and will comply better with the ways you'd like them to behave and it will be easier for you to make your point to them because they'll soften, due to the sense of love they'll feel from you appreciating them. The bonus is that they eventually begin to love their sibling, if you can imagine that. They detach themselves from the conflict and competition that way.

How do you praise one child whose habits don't necessarily accord with your own?

Dr. Rabie-Azoory: Well, you've got to be a bit intellectual about it. This is what I'm trying to impart to families. To feel in charge and in control and not be pulled into this undertow because the characteristics that any child displays are not really you. You have to stand back and make an adult, intellectual assessment of yourself as a parent. And, read the book, of course, and understand that any child's personality is not who they are. This is the essence of my discovery. Their personality is geared to who they think they should be in order for the parents to love them.

The true self is very fluid. It's not a fixed thing. Because, if you have identical twins, do they ever have the same personality? Some do have very similar personalities. But, I would submit that even there you have a dominance-submission relationship where one twin is leader and the other follower. So, the competitive aspect of their life has been worked out. Sometimes some parents jump into the competition, too. That's where one child gets too close to the prime love giver and that usually happens when they're opposite sex individuals, where the prime love giver is male and favored child is female and the secondary parent becomes jealous of the daughter, or the opposite, where mother and son get together and father feels left out.

Jealousy is a big problem. Jealousy of parents towards their children is a big problem that, again, is just unaddressed entirely in psychology. And, if you go to a psychiatrist's office and tell them my mother is jealous of me, they'll look at you very strange and say you're very "oral" or "anal" or something. It's most difficult for a child to come to terms with the sense of having a close person be that jealous of them, especially a person who is supposed to be love giver and care giver. The feeling of guilt and rejection in the child is very debilitating sometimes. It's one of those things that a lot of therapy won't help you. What you really need to do is detach yourself emotionally from the hope that this parent will come around and eventually love you, because the jealousy is there and it's a barrier to love.

How does a single parent play both roles that they demand, loving and strict at the same time?

Dr. Rabie-Azoory: That's an extremely difficult role to play. I would solicit, if I could, as a single parent, as much outside support as I could get from grandparents, aunts and uncles, even teachers, although it's not a complete solution. I would advise the prime love giving parent, the single parent is usually the prime love giving parent, I would advise them to be more on the strict side than they would like to be. I think that works best. I think most prime love givers tend to give in a lot and the single parent needs to stand strong. That's the role, often, of the secondary parent; it's to support the prime love giver in standing strong. But, since that second love giver isn't there, it's up to them to play both roles effectively. But that's one of the most difficult positions to be in. And it's not just the absence of the male that will fill that post. It could just as easily happen to a male that he gives in too much to the children. As you know, possibly from reading the book, I differentiate from parental roles as primary and secondary love givers, but also in half of families, fathers play the role of primary love giver and the other half it's the moms. So this is also unrecognized in psychology. We've always seen fathers as the less involved ones. And the fact is, that in half of families, the children rely on the father's emotional input. And very often, it's put down not only by society but by the mother also. And the family doesn't leave room for the father to feel important, yet the main emotional support to both her and the children is coming from him. So, I consider this very cutting edge information in the field. The book, incidentally, is being published in Brazil as we speak and is slated for worldwide publication eventually. The book, They Love You, They Love Me Not: The Truth About the Family Favorite and Sibling Rivalry is available online and 1-800-59-BOOKS through Barricade Publishing. Online, you can find it at BarnesandNoble.com

What types of personalities become more successful in life? Are there any celebrity examples?

Dr. Rabie-Azoory: You'll find in reading the book that there are about 30 biographies of individuals who are celebrities. And the great majority, whether it's politics or entertainment, however we know the person, that the great majority are disfavored personalities. I had trouble, as a matter of fact, finding examples of favored personalities with their biographies on the shelf simply because the disfavored personality is that much more competitive and driven and will overcome all kinds of obstacles in order to gain the limelight in any aspect of life. That is, in business, in speaking, in acting, they try and put themselves in the forefront a lot more than favored personalities because the favored personalities are the more contented people. They're too content and usually too laid back to push themselves and to try very hard to get to the forefront. It's interesting -- two that we best know, John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, were both disfavored. So, Joseph, the one who died in the war, was the favored personality, a very warm, lovely charismatic fellow and godfather to Ted, the youngest brother. By contrast, John Kennedy was sickly and fought a lot with his brother. They had fierce fights all the time. He was harder to control, for sure, than Joseph. But, Robert Kennedy, again, was a reclusive; he was shy, he was a needy child. His father was the prime love giver, Joseph, Sr. in contrast to Rose Kennedy who was the more rigid, religion-oriented parent. Joseph Kennedy was the warmer and more encouraging one. And, Robert Kennedy was next to Patricia who was third cluster. It was Joseph and John in one cluster. What happens is that in families they cluster off into small groups of twos and threes and compete only within their cluster. Second cluster in Kennedys, Rosemary, Kathleen and Eunice. And within each cluster there is only one favored. In the third cluster was Patricia who was favored and Robert who was disfavored. He needed a lot of encouragement to come up in politics. I believe it was Rose who had to introduce him before he spoke at a rally. He was fairly reclusive, brooding, passionate. And Edward, Ted Kennedy, was also favored, but then, probably was plagued with such a feeling of depression and loss because the prime love giver, Joseph, had been so hit with all these losses. He lost his favorite Joseph and his favorite Kathleen who died in a plane crash. She was also lively and vivacious. Joseph lost two of his favorite children. And then, Robert died too, but before that already the man was so devastated and drained that I believe Ted Kennedy didn't have access to the warmth and compassion, and probably took on the depressive characteristics more so of what Joseph Kennedy had left to offer. So, he's always been low energy, I think , and has always had this depressive core that he's never been able to overcome.

What happens during adolescence?

Dr. Rabie-Azoory: If you're disfavored, you'll go through a difficult adolescence. If you're disfavored and your family splits up, you'll have an extremely difficult time with the break up. It's more an issue of being disfavored than being through adolescence. It's like saying there's a middle child syndrome where a child has difficulties because they're a middle child. It's not necessarily so. If the child starts as disfavored, all problems will arise with the advent of any kind of crisis and adolescence is a crisis. They'll go through any crisis in a difficult way. There are those adolescents who go through that period with little difficulty and others need so much help. It's an expression of the anxieties and lack of security and sense of failure, all the things that were determinants of their disfavored status in the family in the first place, so it's just another example of the disfavored position.

Are children better off with siblings? Or is there a lot to be said for the single child?

Dr. Rabie-Azoory: I'd say the latter. Honestly, if parents want to have an easy -- it's really more from the parents' point of view. It makes a lot of sense in terms of peace of mind that parents will eventually ever have to have just one child. There is the deprivation in terms of the child not having companionship. A lot of single children will pine for a sibling, but as soon as a sibling comes, again, all the conflict ensues. Just in talking to people -- actually when I wrote the book I thought that only children have a difficult time because they don't have perhaps the skills that they might have acquired from the opportunity to compete with a sibling and would come out to the world as naive and overly sensitive, which sometimes happens. However, in speaking repeatedly with adult single children, I've often heard they were perfectly happy with their lives and many said they never desired siblings and they were pleased to be by themselves with their parents and to have all the attention focused on themselves. There is so much research that can be done in this whole field that I try to answer questions but, of course, there's probably a whole gamut out there of replies that you'll get anyway.

How do you help a middle child from feeling the middle child syndrome? What are the characteristics?

Dr. Rabie-Azoory: Again, it's not the middle child syndrome. If there are three siblings, the first two are in conflict. So, the third child really doesn't have much to do with that conflict. If the third child is butting in or teasing the middle child, you have to call off that youngest child. Then you deal with the competition between the first two children. That's done in the same way as any other competition. You distance yourself and try to love the middle child for their input . And then, in the final analysis, after you've done as much encouraging and bolstering as you can to the middle child, you try to love that child in the same way as you love the other child that is the first child and you make some, not too many, but favorable comparisons with the older child. Try and give that middle child a separate status that will identify them as distinct from the older child but special and worthy. You have to ultimately recognize that the siblings in conflict have the desire to be better than the other child who they see as more favored. You have to somehow get them to feel that they are more important in the end and at least as worthy, but maybe even more so in some respects. So, there is no middle child syndrome. It's the same conflict that you're addressing.

You have to consider that some ways society condones women's activities is to say it's a wonderful thing to be involved with helping people by being doctors and social workers. With ambition, you really have to have a basis for doing research. I say in my book that research has to be guided by theory. If you don't have theory then your research could be anything. You could take 1000 people and get one answer and take another 1000 and get another answer. Through therapy can you undo the damage done by favoritism?

Dr. Rabie-Azoory: It's one of the huge tasks that I don't know if therapists address all the time. First of all, they don't always recognize favoritism as being an issue, but once you do that, a huge obstacle is one I describe at the end of the book with Grace Kelly. It's to detach your emotions from the needs and frailties of the people around you who didn't do what you wanted them to do. Grace Kelly is an example of a person who became depressed because she wasn't loved as much as her siblings. She had a sister, brother, herself and a younger sister. She was third. The conflict would then be with her younger sister. Among four, you have two and two. So in this conflict with her younger sister, she was undermined and isolated. She played with dolls and people ignored her a lot. She was once locked in a cupboard for hours and hours, and was discovered still playing with her dolls. She led a dream life. So, Grace Kelly is an example of a person who would need to detach herself from her family. Her family continued to treat her like Cinderella for years and years, and in order for her to get over the feelings of not being Cinderella, she'd have had to work it out for herself that she's not who she was as a little girl and is now the beautiful swan and to start to believe that. She would have had to close off all that emotional pounding and harassing that she got all through her life from them. That's an extremely difficult task, and that's what a therapist should be helping people do, and yet still be in a position where you can love your family. Forgive your mother for being so jealous. Forgive your sister for putting you down and telling you day in and day out that you're ugly, even though you're gorgeous. It's difficult, but therapists, if they understand the dynamics, can help a lot.

You can see with a person like Barbara Streisand who was an extremely anxious individual with stage fright to the max, she lost her dad as a baby and moved in with her grandparents who were tough and disciplinarian. Her stepfather, who ironically was named Mr. Kind, actually used to discriminate her over her stepsister. He'd call her ugly and wouldn't buy her an ice cream one day because she's too ugly, he said. Barbara has been through a lot of therapy and has come a long way. But, it's the attention that you get from psychoanalysis. You go daily and somebody cares about you and gives you the love and support for the self and there is a lot of caring that comes across and you grow and mature and detach. Perhaps she got over a lot of the anger she used to experience. I know she used to give her mother and sister a very menial amount of money to live on while she is obviously a very wealthy woman. Whatever she did achieve early in life also, she used to put tremendous pressure on herself and had a drive for perfectionism and had this stage fright that plagued her for years and years. But, she did have the support and the detachment that comes from working it out.

It takes a long time, but you'd be surprised that when I inform parents about how to change over their children's personalities, say a child is rebellious and the parents change their feelings and attitudes towards their children, sometimes the change over in the child is from night to day within a 24-hour period. Once people are adults it's harder, but with children it's sometimes a breeze and comes so naturally.

What should parents NEVER do?

Dr. Rabie-Azoory: They should never talk about favoritism as a real issue for themselves with their children. They should never tell their children that they actually are closer with one child than the other. I actually heard one so-called expert being interviewed who said that if one child says that "you don't love me enough," you say to them, "well, it just happens that I get along better with your sibling." Those are hot, hot coals. The other precautionary note I'd say is never to tell them that you're favoring one over the other. Never tell one that you favor the other and be as impartial as you possibly can be.

Dr. Rabie-Azoory, thank you for joining us today.