April 14, 2002 -- One Christmas, when Brianna Hentz began wrapping presents, she realized everyone in the family had 10 or 12 gifts — except for 4-year-old Emily, who had just three.
"That was a big, big wake-up call," said her mother, Brianna, who admits to favoring 5-year-old Lillian over her younger sister.
Favoritism is also an issue in the Ely household, where 7-year-old Chris has been to Disney World three times with his mom while his brother Jamie, who is 12, was left home with dad. The boys' mother, Dianne, acknowledges that she gives more attention to Chris because he is a more affectionate and easygoing child.
And in a third family, Sandy Johnson admits to treating her two daughters, Hannah, 7, and Morgan, 9, differently. "You just wonder why you had these different children. One of them you just get along with so wonderfully well and the other one, half the time you just want to choke her to death."
The three families responded to a notice on ABCNEWS.com asking, "Do you favor one child over another even though you try to parent equally?" They agreed to let 20/20 place cameras in their homes in the hope of learning more about the role favoritism played in their household and what they could do about it.
Parents Deny It, But Kids Feel It
Although parents' first reaction is usually to deny favoring one child over another, most parents end up admitting that they do it, according to Dr. Kenneth Hardy, a family therapist and director of trauma and families at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City. "All parents have favorites," he believes.
Hardy says the children are often aware of it, too. If you ask two siblings which one is the favorite and both point to themselves, there's no problem, he says. "If both kids point one way, you know you have a problem."
The Ely boys didn't hesitate when asked whether their mother favors Chris: Both boys nodded. "It's kind of like she doesn't love me," Jamie started to say, then corrected himself: "She does love me, but she, like, favors Chris more, but kind of forgets about me."
Their mother said she loves both boys, but sometimes finds that Jamie's complaining can make her not like him. "I don't think with Christopher I ever have that same feeling."
She also said she finds Chris more affectionate. When she kisses Jamie while he is asleep in bed, she says he seems to rub off her kisses, while Chris "nuzzles," she said. "I think you can just get closer to a more affectionate child."
Hardy, who watched the tapes and talked to the families, said parents often respond better to children who demonstrate that they need and love them.
Like the other mothers, Dianne Ely said she felt guilty when she realized how much she was favoring one of her children. "I thought, God, this is just not right to treat your children differently."
Like Jamie, Morgan Johnson is aware that she is not the favorite in her family. 20/20's cameras showed that when Sandy is criticizing Morgan, Hannah often joins in, siding with her mother against her sister. "They don't like me that much," Morgan said, adding that it doesn't make her feel angry, but, "It makes me feel sad."
Sandy said she finds that Hannah is calmer and more easygoing than Morgan, but Hardy advised her to accept that both girls have good and bad qualities. For instance, the tapes showed that Hannah sometimes takes advantage of her favored role to tease her sister. Sandy admitted it was unfair that Hannah gets away with things that Morgan would be punished for.
Hardy also said Sandy should not allow the parent-child roles to blur. On the tapes, he pointed out that Sandy sometimes slipped into petty arguments with Morgan. She also often allowed Hannah to take on the role of a surrogate mom, which could leave Morgan feeling ganged-up on, Hardy said. He suggested that Sandy ease Hannah out of the parental role, and act more like a grown-up herself. "Parents, teachers and authorities should act like adults," he said.
Breaking the Chain
In the Hentz home, Emily, even at age 4, is aware she is out of favor. 20/20's cameras were rolling when her mother, Brianna, told her to stand in the corner for misbehaving. "You don't love me," Emily accused her.
Brianna said she loves Emily but admits she never really bonded with her because she was having family problems when Emily was born. Now, she thinks Emily acts out because she wants attention.
"It's kind of like a chain. Because I neglected her, she needs attention. Then her behavior is bad to get my attention," Brianna said, adding that she ends up by getting irritated at Emily and ignoring her.
Hardy said that unfavored children often grow up with low self-esteem because they feel unloved. "The most egregious form of rejection that anyone can ever experience is parental rejection."
But there are things parents can do, he said. One thing is to start spending time alone with the unfavored child — "even if it means that you're doing it with some effort initially, where your heart is not into it." He suggested that Dianne take Jamie to Disney World, and that Brianna draw pictures with Emily. It can be something simple. "If it's a good ritual, Hardy said, "it will create more of a connection between the two of you."
Hardy also said parents should keep in mind that each of their children has good and bad qualities. He noted that favorites like Hannah often taunt their unfavored siblings. He said parents often overlook when their so-called "problem" child does something good. He pointed out an instance on one of the tapes where Dianne rebuffed Jamie when he tried to help her comfort Chris, who was upset over losing his homework. Dianne failed to notice Jamie's kind gesture because she is so used to finding fault with him, Hardy said.
The most important thing, Hardy said, is for parents to admit the favoritism. "It's not a horrible thing for a parent to look herself in the mirror and say, 'You know what, I do like one more than the other.' I think that's a good sign, and a good healthy first start."
This Report Was Originally Broadcast May 3, 2002.