Writer and broadcaster

My parents played favourites and are doing it again with their grandchildren.

Dear Annalisa

I am the eldest of four, aged 55, and have a teenager. My parents divorced and lived in countries very far apart 45 years ago, when communication and travel were challenging and expensive. The polarisation and role-casting was set up early: the first child is responsible and bookish; no 2 kind and motherly; no 3 the only son, whom both parents prop up financially; no 4 is the baby and only one “uninfluenced” by the father and therefore good in the mother’s eyes. Second child never had children. Fourth lived away and secretly from everyone until she was found after 15 years.

Both parents seem incapable of being grandparents – almost disconnected with the children of no 1 and 3 but when 4 emerges, it is a chance to start anew. However, the old favouritism re-emerges as well and is transferred on to the “new” grandchildren and long-missing child.

It has become so apparent, the distinction in treatment, that it is hurtful and deeply damaging to my child. I have tried to have an open conversation with my mother (about more than the weather or another sibling) but am stopped before it starts and told that it is not possible and that I am influenced by past exposure to my father (with whom I have not lived since I was 10 and have seen briefly 10 times in 45 years). I am at the point of disappearing from the mess.

The communication has worsened between siblings, parents and children; Father is usually unavailable and Mother critical. Seems like it was in the growing-up years but compounded with an additional generation.

I have tried to discuss this with a close family friend and a psychologist, but everyone begs off. Professional help has not given me any more skills. Before they die, how can I keep the communication with my parents but stop getting the dregs?

There was a curious lack of detail in your letter, which is reproduced almost in its entirety.

First, is it deeply damaging to your child – or to the child in you? You mentioned your child briefly in a second email to me and it seemed you were more conscious/worried of your child seeing how your mother has affected you. Your child has the added benefit of having you and her father (I presume) as a buffer. They are not in the full glare of it.

It can be very damaging when parents show such distinct favouritism, but it says more about them than the child. Not that this really helps you, in the moment of feeling crushed and rejected. Favouritism can have its roots in a few things, sometimes it’s that a child reminds the parent that they were a less than ideal mother/father in the early years and instead of seeking to remedy it, can’t bear the guilt the child reminds them of, so they throw it back at the child. Sometimes certain children remind one parent of the other parent and this brings angst, not joy. Some adults seem to forget that it was their choice whom they chose to have children with.

Whatever the cause, and there are many, it is never the fault of the child, and favouritism can harm all involved – even the favourite. So things may not be as rosy as you think for child no 4, she did go off to live in secret, after all.

Dr Susan Benbow, a psychotherapist (aft.org.uk), thinks your youngest sister going off disappearing for 15 years “begs a lot of questions”, and indeed it does. It also sounds as if she didn’t come back of her own volition, but was found. Have you ever discussed this with your sister?

Benbow also thinks that maybe your mother is living “in fear of losing her again and making up for lost time”. This doesn’t really excuse her behaviour toward you, however.

There was very little about your father in your letter. And it sounds as if your communication with your parents (at least your mother) is not face to face. This can make an already difficult situation even harder.

But I was intrigued by where your siblings live and how you communicate with them? How do you know about how this favouritism manifests now?

I think you need to look at what you would ideally like and ask yourself how achievable this is. I hate to be defeatist, but one must be realistic: it sounds as if your mother hasn’t got the self-awareness, or will, to change. Thus I’m afraid that the ideal relationship you want may never happen. I wonder if you might consider shifting your focus away from your parents and on to to your siblings instead? Is there a sibling you are closer to? Could you start with them? Ask them how it is for them? I honestly think the key to this is in you building adult friendships, if you can, with your siblings. Put your energies into them, and your own immediate family.

A dysfunctional sibling relationship is often – but not exclusively – set up in childhood. While the children stay under the umbrella of the parents, geographically, emotionally etc, that relationship often can’t grow into adulthood.

You might be amazed by what could happen if you stop craving parental approval and start forging your own relationship with your siblings, not the one your parents have defined for you.

You mention professional help hasn’t aided you. Not all professional help is equal. Look for someone who deals with family dynamics (the AFT link above should help).

This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 1st October 2016.