Q: I watch my two grandchildren, ages 6 and 9, after school every day. The elder of the two has recently said things about her younger sibling obviously being my favorite. This breaks my heart, and I'm not sure how to handle it, partly because there's some truth to it. The younger child is sensitive and affectionate, and has always been pretty easy to deal with. The elder has many wonderful qualities, but being easy to deal with has never been one of them. I find myself reacting to the elder's challenging behavior more harshly than the younger's, and the elder child notices it. Any suggestions to help me be more fair and less reactive?

A: Favoritism is utterly common in all families, therefore making it typical for you to have some favoritism, too. Before we go into what to do about the favoritism, allow me to say “thank you!” Thank you for helping your child by caring for his or her children, thank you for being in your grandchildren’s lives, and thank you for being aware enough to know that you are playing favorites and, furthermore, wanting to change that. Although having a favorite child is common, it’s far less common for people to want to address this fact and change, so kudos for all of this!

Before we tackle what to do for this grandchild, let’s peek at why people play favorites. It’s often because we, the adults, relate to the child in front of us. Maybe both child and caretaker are extroverts and are big, loud lovers of life, or maybe both child and caretaker are creatives who crave solitude. In both cases, the caretaker feels naturally comfortable with that child; it’s more effortless. Parenting feels easier, and the child is less defiant and more cooperative. Of course the caretaker gravitates toward that child.

Additionally, let’s say you are a sensitive and gentle grandparent, and you are caring for a rambunctious and active little girl. Although there is nothing wrong with the little girl, her behavior is a threat to your gentle system, causing you to either avoid her or harshly discipline her. In either case, she feels your disapproval and disdain, often bringing about more misbehavior . . . and the cycle continues. Neither grandparent nor child are consciously trying to separate from each other; it is simply a dynamic that results in some serious favoritism.

Every human has favorites. Sometimes we marry them, sometimes we befriend them, and sometimes we parent them. As we recognize this as a natural dynamic in every relationship, rather than fight it, we can ask ourselves your essential question: How can we be “more fair and less reactive” when it comes to favoring one child over another?

One idea that helps us become less reactive is to make a list of when and why you are reacting in anger. For instance, maybe you pick up the children from school, and the older child is cranky but the younger child wants a hug. Your reaction may be to hug the younger child while scolding the older, immediately causing a separation between the children. Once you objectively see the dynamic causing your reaction, you can move on to the second step: creating a plan.

If you know that the child will come off the bus grumpy and that you always react poorly, you can make a plan of what you can do instead. For instance, much grumpiness comes from low blood sugar and hunger, so can you have a snack ready? Or maybe the child needs some physical exertion to let go of the frustrations of the day, so could you find a way to run them around?

A plan can also include what you are not going to do when the child triggers you to choose favorites. Although not as showy, choosing to not react to challenging behaviors can, in many cases, slow those behaviors down. Recognize that turning a blind eye to some misbehavior is a wise move, and although you cannot let every misbehavior go, choosing your battles is a way to be more fair and less reactive.

Because you have this powerfully rational and adult brain, you can absolutely find something in common with the child who isn’t as easy. Make a list of anything that can bring you together, even if that means you sit and learn everything about Minecraft. Finding commonalities will bring a lightness, a smile and kind eyes, thus softening both of your hearts toward each other and lessening the need to play favorites.

If you struggle with creating a plan to connect to the more difficult child, don’t be afraid to reach out to different communities. There are many Facebook groups dedicated to grandparenting, as well as books and coaches. Also, don’t be afraid to ask your child how to better connect; they may have ideas that you never thought of. Any attempt to connect and stay positive is a step in the right direction, and, although it may not yield immediate results, the attempt to connect will be beneficial for both grandchildren in the long run. Good luck.

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