When Mom and Dad Play Favorites

Parents treating children differently is linked to poorer behavior among all the children

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) While most parents try to treat all their children with the same attention, some will play favorites. The child left in the cold may suffer emotionally, but so might the "favorite" child.

A recent study looked at a couple hundred families with at least two children in the family. The researchers assessed how the parents treated their children and then the behavioral and emotional issues the children did or did not display.

The researchers found that parents who paid more positive attention to some children than others had children with more behavioral and emotional problems.

Besides the kids who were neglected more, even the children who got more attention tended to have more behavioral difficulties when parents did not treat all children with equal attention and positivity.

"Treat your children equally and fairly."

The long-term study was led by Jean Christophe Meunier, PhD, of the Psychological Sciences Research Institute at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, and Jennifer M. Jenkins, PhD, at the University of Toronto in Canada.

The study involved 397 Canadian families that each included up to four children, ranging from age 2 to 5.

Overall, 920 children were involved in the study: 297 of the families had two children, 74 families had three children, and 26 families had four or more children.

Basically, the researchers were looking to see whether mothers and/or fathers in each family treated their children differently by "favoring" some over others or by giving less attention to some than the others.

The way mothers treated their children was assessed both through interviews with the mothers and through observations of specific activities between mothers and their children that were done with all the families.

Then the researchers assessed each child's level of aggression, emotional difficulties, social functioning and attention problems.

The researchers analyzed their results statistically and calculated how strongly children's behavioral or emotional problems were linked to the differences in the way their parents treated the kids in the family.

The researchers found that parents who treated their children differently were more likely to see behavioral problems in all their children - not just the ones who got less attention or weren't the "favorite."

The greater the differences in parents' treatment, the greater the behavioral problems among the children were, even when the researchers adjusted their results to account for children's gender and age.

It is possible that parents who treated some children differently than others may have unconsciously been affected by a child's temperament in the first place. In other words, a child who already had more behavioral difficulties or was a more difficult child may have led the parents to have a shorter temper with them.

However, this possibility would not explain why other children in the family also appeared affected by the way the parents treated different children in different ways.

The researchers also measured how much stress and adversity the moms had experienced in their lives, such as being single parents, having a low income, having been abused or feeling unsafe in the home.

The researchers found that mothers who had more of these risk factors in their past were more likely to treat their children differently, such as playing favorites.

In particular, mothers with lower education levels or a history of being abused were more likely to treat their kids differently which, in turn, led to more behavioral problems among their children.

The study was published February 11 in the journal Child Development. The research was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
February 11, 2013
Last Updated:
February 12, 2013