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When Parents Play Favorites

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When Parents Play Favorites

Some forms of parental favoritism have a negative effect on the mental health of the entire family

Any parent with more than one child knows that sibling rivalry is a very real phenomenon, as is the ability or perception of favoring one child over another. According to Psychology Today, one-third to two-thirds of families show a pattern of parental favoritism, also known as differential parenting.

There are some forms of parental favoritism that are acceptable, like when a baby is born or a child is disabled. Some forms of parental favoritism are deeply rooted as well, like in patriarchal societies, when boys are favored over girls, or in mixed families, when parents favor their biological children. But all forms of it have a negative effect on the mental health of the entire family, according to a new study out of Canada.

The Effects of Parental Favoritism

Previous studies looked at the effect of parental favoritism on the affected child, but this study, published in Child Development, shows that the more drastic the parenting styles between children, the worse the outcome of the mental health of all the children in the family.

“This was really surprising,” said Jenny Jenkins, professor in the department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto and lead author of the study. “We expected differential parenting to operate stronger within the parent-child dynamic. However, differential parenting had a stronger effect on the entire family.”

Jenkins and her colleagues found children in families affected by differential parenting showed problems with attention and social relationships. “Sibling divisiveness is a known result of differential parenting,” she said, “with lasting effects into adolescence and adulthood.”

Favoritism and Middle Child Syndrome

“I am the middle child in my family,” says Ashlea Callender, of North Carolina. “Growing up I definitely felt a sense of favoritism.” According to research by sociologist Jill Suitor, birth order is one factor that influences favoritism. Generally, the oldest child receives the most privileges, and the youngest receives the most affection, leaving the middle child in limbo.

The middle child is also the only offspring not to have her parents to herself, putting her in a unique position, and more likely to feel the effects of parental favoritism. People who remembered being victimized by parental favoritism report that the treatment finds a way to manifest itself well into adulthood, with the perception that the “chosen” children are left more in parent’s wills or are valued more in end-of-life decisions.

What Are the Causes of Parental Favoritism?

Clearly, playing favorites is wrong, but experts don’t believe any parent sets out to favor one child over another. So why does it happen? As Jenkins’ study found, the roots are complex. External factors like financial pressures, single parenthood and living arrangements all contribute to the phenomenon.

In situations where certain children in the family need more support or attention than the others, it’s helpful for parents to communicate the rationale behind their actions. Children “don’t mind that parents treat them differently,” Jenkins said in a statement. “They only mind when they see that treatment as unfair, and that comes about when things aren’t explained.”

Did your parents play favorites? How has it affected you? How do you ensure that you treat your children equally? Tell us in the comments section.

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Tamar Leak Suber