Ask Scary Mommy: I'm Trying Not To Play Favorites, But My Oldest Makes It Hard

Ask Scary Mommy: I’m Trying Not To Play Favorites, But My Oldest Makes It Hard

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Ask Scary Mommy is Scary Mommy’s new advice column, where our team of “experts” answers all the questions you have about life, love, body image, friends, parenting, and anything else that’s confusing you.

This week… What do you do when you don’t enjoy spending time with one of your children as much as the other two? Can the family dynamic change? Have your own questions? Email [email protected]

Dear Scary Mommy,
I’m having problems truly enjoying my oldest (5) as much as my other two children (3 & 1) and it weighs me down with guilt. The truth is, I see a lot of the worst parts of myself in 5. She’s anxious, she’s a perfectionist, she’s not flexible, and she’s very tender-hearted. I don’t want to play favorites, but 5 is just so difficult and needy that I find myself resenting her for it and feeling like 3 and 1 aren’t getting the attention/love they need or deserve because they are much less demanding and more easy-going than she is.

I think the epitome of this dynamic was highlighted to me last night: 5 and 3 like to sleep together on non-school nights. In the middle of the night, 3 got sick and threw up. She did great getting herself to the toilet and only got half of her vomit on the floor. 5 called out to me to wake me up and by the time I got upstairs, 3 was already trying to clean the vomit off the floor herself. We got everything cleaned up and I started tucking the girls back in. 5 starts crying and won’t lay down. I asked her if she was okay, was she going to be sick too? She says, “No, what if she throws up in my bed!?” By the time I got back to my own bed, I realized I spent more time consoling and calming 5, when 3 was the one who threw up in the first place! It just made me so mad, because I feel like this is something that happens all the time. My husband and I spend so much of our time trying to help 5 manage her emotions, and meanwhile, our other children are being ignored simply because they aren’t the squeaky wheel.

My husband has a very strained relationship with his sister and has some resentment toward his parents because he grew up in a similar dynamic – an extremely emotionally needy sister and parents that basically catered to her and ignored him because he was easy-going where she was demanding. I don’t want history to repeat itself. 

I need solid advice to help change my attitude regarding my oldest and to prevent any feelings of neglect or resentment in my other children.

First things first: If you’re feeling resentful of your child, she already knows it. That may be a really hard pill to swallow. Parenting is full of these, though, and humility is part of the job.

What you’re describing as your own “worst” qualities are actually parts of yourself and your daughter that come from an earnest, loving place. You need to find acceptance of yourself and those qualities before you can begin to help your child. The best way to do this is through therapy, which I am suggesting wholeheartedly if you are able to financially afford it.

When it comes to your daughter, from what you describe it doesn’t seem like she’s actively trying to harm her siblings or exhibits any intentionally alarming behavior. Honestly, she sounds like a really smart, really intuitive kid with a big heart. These kids often need more energy from their caregivers, because their emotions and thoughts can be even more overwhelming than for the average little bear.

Changing the dynamic of how a family operates is incredibly difficult. It’s not impossible, though. Here’s what you and your husband really need to do:

1. Model good emotional stability. Kids pick up on everything. Flying off the handle when it comes to one child and not the others is something you really can’t afford to do anymore.

2. Shift your focus.  It’s fine to feel frustrated about everything. However, instead of labeling your daughter’s needs as “difficult,” maybe consider things from a different perspective (that’s what unbiased outsiders are for, right?) Your 5-year-old daughter sounds very emotionally intelligent. She wants to share a bed with her little sister, knew that Mommy and Daddy were needed to help 3 when she was sick, and honestly, it was probably a little traumatic to watch her little sister get sick in the middle of the night and she was likely scared it would happen again. Your homework is to find way to reframe your child’s “negative qualities” as positive attributes.

3. Being 5 is hard. At her age, kids begin to experience “big kid” emotions. Regulating these emotions for a child that age is really hard at first. They don’t have the vocabulary or technique to handle everything they’re feeling — particularly emotionally intelligent children. These are skills that take time to develop, and that’s where the emotional stability demonstrated by you and your husband comes in handy to help build them. Continue to ask her to help her younger siblings and teach her good self-care methods for when she feels overwhelmed.

Not wanting to repeat family dynamics that you and your husband experienced is more than understandable. We all have family baggage we don’t want to carry with us into our lives as parents of our own kids. But don’t let that cloud your current relationship with your oldest.

Again, therapy and counseling are wonderful options to help you learn self-acceptance so you can love yourself and your children the way you all need and deserve to be loved.

Have your own questions? Email [email protected]