It is horribly guilt-inducing to prefer one of your children to the other, but far from uncommon. Sally Jones seeks advice on beating the demon of favouritism
IT WAS ONE warm spring night when I realised with a shock that I favoured one of my children over the other. I was, as usual, snuggling up with Jack, the four year old, before he went to sleep, while Tom, our elder child, was reading with his father next door. Jack was giving me goodnight kisses and telling me how much he loved me, and I was whispering similar things back. The words were on the tip of my tongue and I just managed to stop myself from saying them: "Guess who's my favourite boy?" It struck me that this wasn't the first time I'd had this unpleasant little thought. Did I really prefer one of my children to the other? After Jack had fallen asleep I went in to say goodnight to Tom. It wasn't long before I started to get irritated. He kept picking his nose, his hands were grubby, and on top of everything he managed to spill his glass of milk. In the end I was almost shouting, unable to contain my anger.

I'd always sworn there would be no favourites in my family: always sworn I wouldn't be like my mother who had (I felt) loved my brother more than me. But looking back over the last months, I knew I'd ignored the warning signals. My partner had said I didn't cuddle Tom enough. Tom himself had complained that Jack got more attention. I'd explained to him that this was because of the difference in ages - and that he'd had the same from me when he was younger.

When my first child was born I'd fallen instantly in love: he was gorgeous, always smiling, with a shock of blond hair. But the day that Jack arrived, Tom, then four, was displaced. Overnight, he was transformed from my baby into a huge, clumsy toddler who would never leave me alone - when all I wanted to do was be with my new, perfect baby.

Talking to other new mothers, I realised that these feelings were common. I also tried to make sure Tom never knew what I was feeling, and that he never felt excluded. But surely that period was behind us now. For four years, Tom and Jack had got on like a house on fire and we had all healthily adjusted. Or had we? At eight, Tom is no longer instantly loveable in the way small children can be. He is, probably, a typical eight-year- old boy: occasionally truculent, obsessed with football and his Nintendo, insisting on wearing nothing but trainers, refusing point blank to have a hair cut. Big for his age, he can also be clumsy: he is always falling over and and when he comes for a cuddle can almost knock me over.

In my heart I know that Tom has many lovely qualities. He is sensitive, kind, protective of Jack and underneath the "cool", full of enthusiasm: he loves drawing, reading, doing his Lego, running along the beach, walking in the countryside. But although I love him deeply, I rarely seemed to take delight in him any more. Our relationship consisted of me shouting ferociously - to get dressed, get to school on time, find his school bag, do his homework, have his bath - and then feeling shaken and guilty at my anger. And when I cuddled him last thing at night, he would hold on to me for dear life and pant for more like a neglected puppy. Which in turn made me panicky, irritable and desperate to get away.

Jack, on the other hand, I could cuddle forever. His mass of curly copper- coloured hair frames the round face of a cherub. I find him funny and charming even when he sulks. I love his silky skin when he puts his face near mine and the way his little body clings to me when he's tired.

I knew that the difference in my attitude towards my two children partly reflected the phases they're each going through: it is easier to enjoy a child who still delights in learning his letters than in one who needs to be frogmarched to his desk. But I also wondered if my feelings reflected something deeper. Physically, Jack resembled me, while Tom looked more like his father: was it possible that subconsciously I identified more with my younger son? Jack was also, like me, the younger sibling. Perhaps by favouring him, I was trying to compensate for my own troubled childhood. In addition, Jack was relatively "new". I could project my ambitions - for academic success, say, or musical prowess - onto him in a way I could no longer do with Tom, who was now his own person, warts and all.

Over the next few weeks I tried to convince myself that I'd got it all wrong - that I was imagining things. I told myself that eight year olds don't need as many cuddles, that they want to play with their friends, not their mums. But I still agonised over what I'd almost said. Some reassurance came from Dr Richard Wilson, a child psychologist and author in Glasgow, who said such feelings were common and often temporary. "Many parents connect more easily and feel more comfortable with one child at a certain stage," he explained. "These feelings are perfectly normal - but there's a huge difference between having the feeling and letting it show. The main thing is not to let it become self-fulfilling. If you are more comfortable with your four year old, then make the effort to spend more time with your eight year old. In a year's time you'll feel more connected with him."

So why do even the most well-intentioned of parents have favourites? There were many reasons, said Dr Wilson. "We often favour the child that is most similar to ourselves, because seeing ourselves in our children is like looking in a mirror. Another reason is that one child may be more vulnerable - they may have had a difficult start or a health problem, and we are drawn in to helping that child, and forge a more dynamic relationship. Some parents favour the child who meets their own unfulfilled goals or achievements." A parent who was not a favourite, he said, "may either make damn sure she has no favourites - or favour the child he or she perceives as the underdog." So what was I to do about it? "The more a child gets up your nose, the harder you must work to get over the barrier," said Dr Wilson. "Your attitude should be: `He's driving me crazy and I'm going to spend even more time with him'. It's essential to fight to keep the bond going. And you have to look at what it is about that child that has made your barrier go up. Don't expect the child to change his personality to suit you."

Over the last few weeks, things have changed between me and Tom, although it is difficult to pinpoint precisely how. Realising what was happening has been painful, but it has helped to shift something within me and release a surge of love and tenderness for my sweet, awkward eight year old. I realise I can accept and appreciate him as he is - grubby hands, spilt milk and all. I've also tried to spend more time with Tom, to play the odd game of battleships with Jack plonked in front of a video. I am trying to listen to him more, to communicate with him rather than nag him. I sometimes read to him in the evenings rather than leaving it all to his father. I cuddle him before he demands it - first thing in the morning, not last thing at night.

Writing this has been difficult. I feel that by putting my feelings down on paper, I am somehow betraying Tom. I hope he hasn't suffered, and I want him to know that, despite everything, my love for him has never really been in question.