How to come to grips with favouritism from critical parents
October 6, 2020 4:22 PM   Subscribe

Since my parents moved closer, they’ve been criticising my choices non-stop and showing blatant favouritism to my sibling. I’m realising that the relationship I thought I had with them was glossed over due to distance and I’m struggling to come to terms with the changes without causing irreparable damage to the relationship.

As the first born child of a south Asian asian family, I was always seen as the golden ticket out of financial insecurity for the family. To that end, my parents raised me to be a hardworking, self sacrificing and disciplined daughter, putting aside any and all personal wants and needs if they weren’t aligned with the singular goal to get into a good university, followed by a high paying job that would allow me to help the whole family.

It was drilled to me from a young age that the sacrifices my parents, first generation immigrants, were making were large and heavy and should I fail in my (their) mission to accomplish the goals set out for me, it would be more than they deserved or could bear. So I studied and worked hard, seeing how we were a struggling working class family, and frankly was fully convinced that the contemplation or exploration of personal goals, desires and self actualization was a self-indulgent endeavor for those who had the time and money to afford it.

The same demands were, naturally, not made of my brother, who coasted through school without ever having to endure melodramas about an A-, and was allowed to fiddle with interests and hobbies that weren’t strictly academic. At the same time, my parents would vent to me all their worry about a potential financial instability in his future and regularly asked me to talk to him and guide him through school and then a career choice.

My school and, later, job had taken me to the opposite coast from where my family lived but once I finished grad school and worked for a few years, my parents started planning their move to the same state so that we could all finally be close by (my brother had just graduated college and lived with them).

The move was understood that would be heavily subsidized by me at first, both with money and time/research, but the upside was that the family could all live close by again and in their words, they could provide us support when we started our own families. The job prospects for my brother and father were also better in the state where I live.

After living alone and away from my family for years, I was thrilled to live close to them again. In my thrill-induced trance, I helped them move by looking for a house for them, paying for moving costs, help with living costs until they settled in their new jobs, etc. I guess that at the end of this, I thought my reward finally awaited in the form of family bliss and stability, with me and my husband starting our own family and having parents nearby for support, at least in the beginning.

That didn’t happen.

What happened instead was that, the moment they got settled, they started criticizing all aspects of my life like my job (you don’t get paid enough, the son of the neighbor of your cousin makes 3 times what you make), my marriage ( you don’t have kids yet, why don’t you have kids, your cousins all have kids by now) and so forth.

When not criticizing my life choices, they want to talk to me exclusively about their concerns about my(adult) brother and urge me to figure out a plan to help him get a high paying job ASAP now that he finished school.

During a family get-together a month ago, my brother announced that he may have a job opportunity in the same state we all live now but a 4 hour drive away (we currently live 20 minutes away from each other). My parents stated that if that happened, they too would move to follow him because god forbid they’re not right there if he ever needs their help or support.

This has opened the gates of resentment, disillusionment and searing anger for me and I’m finding it hard to even talk to them at the moment. I’m starting to see for the first time things that I had never realized before about how little they saw me as an actual person and how much they see me as a two-legged investment.

I’m also deeply hurt by the blatant favoritism to my brother, which I knew was there but never to this extent. Back when I was choosing colleges, I had the option to study in the same state where we lived or across the country and my father convinced me to go to the second one because it is a more prestigious school and he thought I’d have better job prospects if I went there. I’m feeling childish feelings of jealousy at the thought that they wouldn’t even consider living away from my brother for a while but they had no qualms about me doing so if it meant a better paying job in the future (for their sakes). And if it comes to living close to one of us, they will always choose him without a second thought.

I tried breaching the topic with them last week but they refuse to accept that they’ve shown even a shred of favouritism and their total denial made me too angry to continue the discussion. Their excuse as to why they’d follow him around is that apparently he needs more support than I ever did, he’s not as strong and self sufficient like I was. Of course that’s only because they always did everything for him, even the mental labor of excusing his shortcomings, but they just see this as a natural order of things.

I’m basically struggling with a flood of very new to me emotions, ranging from abandonment to anger to disappointment and I‘m not sure how to relate to my parents now, I don’t even want to see them for a while. It’s almost as if I’m grieving (dramatic, I know) the idea of family I had in my head that I now realize will never be. I do have a supportive husband as well as a few good friends and I realize that family is also the one we choose to make but I guess the severing of whatever cord was there was sudden and painful and im struggling to adjust.

If you’ve dealt with something like this and have any advice to share about how you coped, I’d be grateful to hear it.
posted by Riverside to Human Relations (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
In short, you move away and get therapy. They’re not going to change, so you have to but being in close proximity to this will be soul destroying. Yeah, you’ll cop a huge amount of grief and they’ll try and guilt you but they’re doing that anyway, so you might as well be living your best life on the other side of the country while they try it. This is a horrible dynamic and once you have kids, it’ll get even worse and you’ll have to watch them get treated the same way. Escape now.
posted by Jubey at 4:41 PM on October 6 [7 favorites]

Grief is actually the right word for what you are experiencing. If you can get a break from your family for a while it will make it easier so you can have time to process all of this without of provocation of seeing it happen right in front to you. (I am no help with how to explain that to them though - maybe a sudden emergency at work or an exposure to someone with COVID that makes you need to quarantine?)

This doesn't have to a total severing of the cord if you don't want it to. You might find that if you get some distance back and adjust to this more honest version of your family that you can find a relationship with your parents that works better for you. Or not. But first you have to grieve and adjust before you will know what is right for you in the long term.

Although reading your story, I think you are luckier than your brother. He has been labelled the "problem child" whose ability to succeed in life is in constant doubt by his parents and they hovering will make it very hard for him to ever strike out on his own.
posted by metahawk at 4:52 PM on October 6 [13 favorites]

It's not dramatic. You are experiencing legitimate grief and loss.

Might be good to seek out a therapist - preferably someone familiar with South Asian family structures.

I'm sorry that you're dealing with this and wish you well.
posted by bunderful at 4:59 PM on October 6 [3 favorites]

If I were you, I would breath many sighs of relief at the prospect of having your brother and parents move 4 hours away. Having some distance between you will lessen the opportunity for interaction and the related criticism that comes with it.

That said, I understand the feelings of rejection and hurt that must come with seeing your parents willing to uproot themselves at the drop of a hat for your brother. It doesn't sound like your parents are willing or able to change their perspective or, more importantly, their behavior. Your attempts to change their minds or their actions are only going to end in disappointment and frustration and so you need to try another tack.

You'll need to work on setting and keeping boundaries that protect you and your emotional well being. You can limit the amount of time you spend with your parents and you can limit the topics of discussion you're willing to engage in with them. You don't have to explain what you're doing or why, just do it.

Parents - Come for the afternoon.
You - Sorry, I can only make it for 1 hour.
Parents - Why can't you stay longer.
You - Sorry, I can only make it for 1 hour.
Rinse and repeat

Parents - You should do X with your life
You - Thanks, for your advice.
Parents - Why haven't you done X?
You - Thanks, for your advice.
Rinse and repeat

Parents - We need you to help pay for X
You - Sorry, I can't do that.
Parents - But we're your parents and need X
You - Sorry, I can't do that.
Rinse and repeat

You'll need help to build up the strength and ability to set boundaries. And you need help processing your feelings of disappointment. It is possible to love someone and recognize their inability to meet your needs at the same time. Protect yourself and your husband.
posted by brookeb at 5:00 PM on October 6 [8 favorites]

I don't think you necessarily are headed for a rift but the danger is high.
I think a lot depends on both you and your parents recognizing and unpacking the dysfunction.
I do agree that a therapist would help, particularly someone from an Asian background who knows the cultural assumptions and roles. In my case I think we would have benefited but having said that, Asian parents and therapists don't mix so it'd have to be a solo journey most likely.

Our family, myself and two sisters are first generation. Our parents are immigrants with the stereotypical value system (strong family, hard work = $, children). When we were in our mid-twenties and thirties, all of us were under the same kind of criticism/pressure that you mention.

We're past it now. Me and to a lesser extent my younger sister is through it and we've remained close to our parents. However, my older (yes!) sister had to distance herself. Not just from the parents but from us two. I think she believes that we are favored ones, and the pain of criticism was too much to bear. It's really sad.

So for what it's worth, the dilemma is as follows:

We cannot as children of a tight knit family ignore what our parents say. You cannot unhear those words. When the parents suggest changes to us, we see that as criticism and rejection. It hurts. From their side they see ithemselves helping us become better. When we fight back, they feel hurt. There is also some kind of social status thing with this as well. The problem is heightened because those core critiques usually are centred around things that we do not have complete control over. ("Get married!", "have kids", uh, okay....). The stress is terrible because you simultaneously want to make them happy but you cannot deliver that wrapped up in bow. Add to this the communication style common among Asian parents: "You must have kids!"

The glimmer of hope rests on two things. One, we love our parents. Two, our parents love us. There's a need to break that down until you reach that foundation.

Failing that, the course that can also be simultenously taken is to look inside oneself and detach your sense of self-worth from parental approval. It's difficult. On issues like having children, recognize that what they say will pull your triggers. Take a breath, and repeat to them what you would like to say factually to address it. Keep doing it. Practice getting triggered over and over again. Stick to the calm. Eventually there is a possibility of progress.

(Note this is predicated on your parents in fact loving you. I assume that's the case and in most cases, and there's nothing more insidious going on. If the assumption is incorrect, a rift is perhaps better).
posted by storybored at 5:03 PM on October 6 [15 favorites]

I was the younger child, but I was saddled with the expectations to be successful and while they coddled my older brother; my whole family was co-dependent and sexist, and at a certain point I realized that not only did they all orbit around my brother, they expected me to, too. My achievements made him feel bad and my hard work made him feel bad and yet I was also exhorted to be more supportive of how hard it was for him to find a job and become more stable due to his criminal record and complete lack of desire to work for a living. I was also supposed to be forgiving when he stole from me, yelled at me, humiliated me, hit me, or belittled me. I was ALSO supposed to provide financial support to them all.

So a lot of what you said resonated with me.

I don't have any specific advice, really. Therapy didn't/hasn't helped me get past the hurt, although time and total estrangement from my family of origin helped me get past the anger.
posted by sm1tten at 5:48 PM on October 6 [3 favorites]

Parents have favourites and thinking of the people I know I'd say it usually isn't the first-born. It is on the parents to not go overboard in their favouritism though. It sounds like your parents aren't keeping their favouritism in check and you are understandably upset. I think if you tried to explain what you're feeling your parents would likely deny it or make up excuses for their behaviour so honesty isn't going to resolve anything. If you trust your brother to keep it to himself you could discuss it with him as he likely recognizes your family dynamic and in his way may be able to indicate to your parents that they have been treating you unfairly. But you know your brother and if such discussion would be fruitful. Either way as far as your own interactions are concerned be busy/distant for a while and focus on your own family. Then decide when and how to let your parents into your life.

Also, my family's from Pakistan/Northern India and I'm kind of surprised that they've got you pegged as the one to support them. My family's cultural expectation would be that's the (oldest) son's job. Daughters have to prioritize their husband's family. Is it different within your parents' culture?
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 6:19 PM on October 6

During a family get-together a month ago, my brother announced that he may have a job opportunity in the same state we all live now but a 4 hour drive away (we currently live 20 minutes away from each other). My parents stated that if that happened, they too would move to follow him because god forbid they’re not right there if he ever needs their help or support.

I'm really sorry for this grief and sadness you are experiencing, but your parents have presented the solution right here. First, the reason they want to follow your brother is because of his learned helplessness, what they taught him. They coddled him and reduced their expectations of him, and now they want to pave the way forward for him. I presume there's some internalized sexism built into this.

They raised you to be strong and capable, and you are! So strong and capable that you've been supporting them in part! This is extraordinary. I'm sorry they haven't seen how fucking awesome you are, and how you've sacrificed for them. I'm guessing that's what daughters are expected to do in their/your culture?

But they're being pretty awful to you. It will never be a fairy tale. And, truly, the best way to escape this stressful dynamic, to get them out of your hair, is if they move away. It will sad, but you'll be grieving your hopes and dreams with them there or without them there.

They are playing favorites; they are choosing their son over their daughter. Patriarchy is pretty awful, right?

You're not going to convince them of this, though. I know you desperately want them to validate your feelings. It's not going to happen. I strongly suggest working with a therapist who is well-versed in your family's culture. Do you have any friends from South Asian families, particularly first born daughters? It might be helpful for you to talk to them, or find them somehow.

When I was in college, I moved several states away to be closer to my dad (my parents were divorced). But my poor relationship with my stepmom kept getting in the way. Nothing I could do would please her (I tried in so many ways!). Now I try to be polite and warm but slightly distant, and I try not to let her get under my skin. I have also accepted, with great sorrow, that I can't be as close to my dad as I would like. I now live further away from them, and it's less sad to me that they're so much closer to their other grandkids. Still sad though.

You've spent a lot of time seeking their approval, giving up personal interests and goals to satisfy them. And now it seems like no matter what you do, it won't be enough. It won't ever be enough. So you are going to have to figure out how to stop wanting or needing that approval. It's hard and sad. Good luck.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:49 PM on October 6 [6 favorites]

Hi Riverside, I can relate. I have a mother of South Asian descent and a father of German (a.k.a. White Trash Canadian) descent. That Indian-in-the-White-Man syndrome sure came out fierce in my White Trash Dad, such that, I could have written out a fair amount of your story myself.

As the first born child... I was always seen as the golden ticket out of financial insecurity for the family.

It was drilled to me from a young age that the sacrifices my parents, first generation immigrants, were making were large and heavy and should I fail in my (their) mission to accomplish the goals set out for me, it would be more than they deserved or could bear.

The same demands were, naturally, not made of my brother, who coasted through school without ever having to endure melodramas about an A-, and was allowed to fiddle with interests and hobbies that weren’t strictly academic. At the same time, my parents would vent to me all their worry...

This all sounds very much like my parents -- somehow my White Dad 'naturalized' himself into South Asian Indian culture upon purchasing my mother, and in spite of all the White Man privilege Canada could bestow upon him since birth, he still needed an Indian Daughter to save him from his own wretchedness. If I got an A- on my report card, it meant I was failing the family (that's right, it's not the White Trash Man's Alcoholism that was ruining the family, it was the Indian Child's inability to magically grow into a doctor because clearly White Trash Men of North America believe all Indians grow into doctors -- no nurturing required). Even after I made it into university, even after I got the high-paying job he absolutely needed me to have................ he still attempted to discard me and my mother while holding on to his chattel-son (the golden child whose ass he could not stop wiping).

Anyhow, my limited pearls of wisdom for you:

>Give yourself time to grieve and process the realization of how conditional your parents' love may in fact be for you.

>Read up on narcissistic parenting and its effects on children.

>Realize that all that time you spent worrying about how to take care of them, they weren't spending anywhere near that amount of time worrying about how to take care of you.

>In time, realize your brother is being wounded by this parenting style too.

>Bonus points: if you can, accept their flaws and limits in being your parents.

FWIW I never got this far with my White Trash Dad because he went on to mature into a fine sexual predator of young people in his ripe old age......... no amount of Indian children could buffer the monster in that High-Caste Man of White Skin...... ah the "merit" of our Race-Based North American Caste System for White People who learn all their Racial Competency Skills from fellow North American pedophiles and sex offenders....... Your parents marriage sounds stronger than my parents marriage was, so hopefully YMMV. Good luck!
posted by human ecologist at 9:24 PM on October 6 [6 favorites]

I'm you in my Asian immigrant family and capitulating to my parents' demands has destroyed my life in so many ways. Get away from them and find a way break their hold on you -- they are abusive and cruel.
posted by shaademaan at 4:11 AM on October 7 [4 favorites]

I can empathize a lot with growing up under a narcissistic Asian parent who thinks that their kids are just extensions of themselves. I really hope your brother gets that job and they move away so that they're out of your hair.

I'm also sorry that you've given so much to them and they fail to recognize that. Good on you for pointing that out--one thing I've learned from my own experience is that it can be good to express that anger and upset for the sake of asserting and expressing yourself (even if nothing really comes out of it because it falls on deaf ears). I personally grew up in a household where talking back/expressing upset was not really a thing, so I commend you for that, as I suspect that your experience might have been similar.

A lot of people are suggesting working with a therapist; if you decide to do so, one thing that may be worth exploring is, "Do I really owe my parents anything more?" And if you find you still want to have a relationship with them, another thing to think about would be "How can I have a relationship with them that lets me stay connected with them but also take care of myself?" I want to give you full permission to just sever your relationship with your parents, but I understand that might be difficult to do completely.

Regardless, you have my utmost sympathy for going through this. You sound great and I'm really sorry your parents aren't giving you the recognition and love you deserve.
posted by dean_deen at 7:08 AM on October 7 [1 favorite]

Oh boy, I can relate to this, as a participant observer in my partner's family dynamics. Including the unfair and impersonal expectations ($$$) on the first born, the babying of the obnoxious second born son, the moving homes "to be closer" but actually more to try to control, influence, and belittle. Ugh, its exhausting.

I'm not going to address the mental health aspect of it (therapy is useful) but just give you some advice that seems have worked, somewhat, for my partner: boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.

As challenging as your parents have made it, it sounds like you have a good sense of yourself - you have a career, a partner, are stable and clear-eyed. So protect this. Identify what it is that your parents do to destabilize and criticize your life. An example: for my partner, a thing that her mom did to her for years is to announce/threaten "I'm coming over on Saturday", without providing a time of arrival or caring if other plans were made. For her mother, this was an assertion of her "rights" as the matriarch and grandmother and of her importance in our lives.

For some time, my partner would engage with this - try to negotiate a time that wouldn't interfere with other plans, or to pin down arrival / departure times more clearly. Finally, she woke up and started saying no, if it didn't work for us. Tons of gnashing of teeth, screaming fights, etc., but the only thing that worked is shutting it down. Its painful to do, and I don't think they are as "close" anymore, but overall its really helped our family, a lot.

Focus on what you need and don't take responsibility for your parents' reactions.
posted by RajahKing at 7:42 AM on October 7 [1 favorite]


I'm you, except older, and my parents never expected my financial support, but simply poured ALL of their money/savings/retirement into my disastrous sibling. One point experience tells me to make: I know it seems like it, but: He's not their favorite. They think he's pathetic and can't handle adult expectations (even though they'll never tell you so in so many words), and they're proud of you (even though they'll never show it). This is how they manage their anxiety about the fact that their youngest isn't as "good" as their oldest, and they think because of that that they failed. And they're trying to prop up their failure by bailing him out and getting you to help him and them. (Which will only lead to more failure on his part, and more lavish "favoritism" on their part.)

I've made my peace with this by recognizing that as much as I wish that my parents had supported my every whim and wish and desire without apparently ever expecting me to work -- he's not better off for their support. He's never held a job and he's bled them dry. He doesn't feel good about himself; how could he? I'm the one who can take care of myself and my own family; I'm the one they brag about to their friends; I'm the one who achieved my own dreams. I actually got the better end of the deal in terms of their parenting, even though it hurts. They gave him attention and support, but they gave me strength and capacity. I would have liked both, don't get me wrong, but if I had to choose, I'm glad I got what I got.

The other piece of this is good boundaries, which is difficult if you were raised to believe family was first. But I focused on supporting my *own* family, and being proud of not repeating my parents' unhealthy behaviors with my own kid. And I focused on achieving my own dreams, and giving myself the love and support I didn't get. That's the hardest part of all -- being generous with yourself and overcoming the spiritual anorexia and self-denial you were raised with. Every time they play favorites, do something to treat yourself as your own favorite. Leave them to their own devices. Don't support their nonsense.

Best of luck to you. Not having your parents' love and support - and seeing them offer the same to someone else -- is a deep wound, and nothing you deserved.
posted by shadygrove at 8:13 AM on October 7 [12 favorites]

Hi Riverside,

First of all, I'm so so sorry that you are going through this. I've gone through much the same in the last 3 years with my own family. So much of what you and others in this thread have said resonates with me. I found the description of the golden child/scapegoat dynamic at this link very helpful for me. Like shadygrove above says, as painful as it is, you got the better end of this shitty, shitty dynamic. My parents respect me and are proud of me even if they'll never say so, and since I was never able to get their approval, I'm better able to set and enforce strict boundaries with them in a way that my other siblings are unable to.

Like storybored's sister, I had to distance myself from my siblings too. My situation is slightly different from yours, in that I had always known from an early age that my parents love for me was conditional and that I was incapable of ever living up to those conditions, but what broke my heart was when I realized that the same was true for the sibling I was closest to.

Realizing that the person who I considered my closest friend, that I loved unconditionally and was willing to die for also believed that I was undeserving of the same affection and support that they received was literally the most painful thing I've ever been through. It was the end of my closest relationship, one of 30 years. I took 3 days off work and cried in bed.

There was nothing I could do but grieve, both the loss of the relationship, and the fact that it had never been the relationship I thought it was. Oddly enough, there was a freedom that came with the pain too. I was already in therapy for related issues, but honestly, just grieving and distancing myself drastically from my family was a huge help. I hadn't realized just how much the dysfunctional dynamics drained me and left me with constant low-level anxiety.

I'm in a much better place now and I have a relationship with my family members that works much better for me. Interestingly enough, my parents coped with my distance much better than my siblings - I saw a level of patience, care and compassion from both of them that I did *not* expect at all.

I'm not sure if my experience is helpful (especially since I've avoided specifics), but I want you to know that your grief is healthy and normal; that you are still worthy of love even if you go against your parents wishes and do the things that make *you* happy without taking their thoughts, feelings or opinions into consideration. There's another relationship with your parents waiting for you on the other side, a happier and better one for you.

This stranger on the Internet is thinking of you and rooting for you! Your grief is not dramatic at all. It's the first step towards something better. Please go out of your way to be gentle and compassionate with yourself during this time. Think of it as giving yourself all the love and support that your parents were unable to show you.
posted by (bra) at 12:19 PM on October 9 [1 favorite]

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