How Parents Who Play Favorites Hurt the Entire Family

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Parents try to be fair, but children pick up on subtle differences in the way they are treated.

In a study appearing in the journal Child Development, researchers led by Jennifer Jenkins, a professor of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto, report on the wide-ranging effects that playing favorites, known as differential parenting, can have on not just individual siblings but also on the behavior and mental health of all family members.

When parents provide more positive feedback and encouragement to one child while sending primarily negative comments to another, it’s no surprise that the negatively targeted child may develop more behavior problems and have a more difficult relationship with his parents. But Jenkins and her colleagues were interested in exploring how differential parenting affects all siblings in a family and in understanding some of the factors that might make such differential treatment more likely.

(MORE: Playing Favorites)

The researchers focused on nearly 400 Canadian families, each of which had at most four children. They asked mothers about their children’s positive and negative behaviors and went to some of the families’ homes to observe parent-child interactions — for example, how the children played without toys and how mothers taught their children to make a pattern based on a photo, and the way mothers told their children a story. When the youngest children were at least 18 months old, the researchers measured the youngsters’ aggression, attention and emotional problems and rated their relationships with siblings and parents.

Overall, the negatively treated children tended to show more attention and emotional problems than their more positively treated siblings by the end of the four-year study, but all children showed higher rates of these problems compared with when the trial began. That, says Jenkins, was a surprise since previous work had only highlighted the effect of differential parenting on the targeted children.

“We would have thought that, on the basis of previous research, it would just be the disfavored children who are having problems, but that’s not the case,” says Jenkins. “Sometimes moms are very similar with their kids, and sometimes they’re very different with their kids. And when they advantage some and disadvantage others, it looks like it’s a problem for all of the kids in terms of their mental health.”

(MORE: Psychological Abuse: More Common, as Harmful as Other Child Maltreatment)

Since parents rarely set out to treat their children differently, the scientists decided to explore which factors promoted differential parenting; they figured that a mother’s stress due to economic or personal experiences might have the greatest impact on the way she treats her children, so they also collected data on the mothers’ education levels, depression and history of physical and sexual abuse. They also considered family dynamics such as whether the mother was a single parent raising her family and the safety of the home environment.

Mothers who came from unstable family backgrounds were more likely to treat each of their children differently than mothers who had privileged upbringings, and the more external factors a mother faced, like being a single parent or struggling with depression, the more difficult it was for her to treat her children equally.

That makes sense, Jenkins says, since a mother who is stressed may have less patience with the child who has more problems. But as a result, all of her children may experience more behavior problems since children tend to internalize their parents’ reactions. Children who perceive the differential treatment as unfair, even if they are treated more positively, may also act out and develop attention or emotional problems as they grow older, possibly as a way to empathize with their siblings or in protest of the injustice of the favoritism. “It creates a sense of the kids feeling uneasy, or [gives them a] sense of unfairness,” says Jenkins. “In other studies, we’ve shown that the amount of differential parenting is related to the quality of sibling relationships, so when a kid is favored or disfavored, [he or she] is fed up with the sibling, getting on less well with that sibling, and that also feeds into the general dynamic of the family.”

(MORE: The New Science of Siblings)

Addressing some of the factors that may fuel parents to play favorites, like financial strain, could help alleviate some of the wide-ranging effects on families. “We really have to start supporting parents who are socially disadvantaged and make sure they have access to money so they aren’t worried about their kids all of the time, and access to good childcare so that they’re not worried about kids being on their own when they’re working,” says Jenkins. “These things are eating into the way parents can parent.”

Even when parent-child relationships are stressed in this way, communicating well can reduce some of the negative consequences. In some families, certain siblings need more attention or support than others, and parents should discuss with their kids why they are approaching siblings differently to avoid any misunderstanding. Children “don’t mind that parents treat them differently,” Jenkins says. “They only mind when they see that differential treatment as unfair, and that comes about when things aren’t explained to children.”

MORE: What the Pygmies Can Teach Us About Child Rearing

30 comments
iammrlackey
iammrlackey

I grew up thinking the one thing I owed Mom and Dad was progeny, grandchildren; for them to spoil and with whom they would share time, to help the kids learn to love and prosper: I could not appreciate what it meant to be a good parent, nor the raging disparities between the idea and our reality. I'll spare you the details -- the more I contemplate those times, the more horrified I am over how we kids were raised.


There have been less than a handful of times Mom and Dad were asked to watch my kids, and the last couple of times were met with angry outbursts of contempt and disgust (thanks to Mom). I'm not sure about now, but Mom did watch her favorites' kids on occasion, her naturally at wits end within a few hours (did I mention she was a horrible parent?). 

Following Dad's death she was more tolerable than I could ever remember. But now that she's moving on with her life, the infernal b*tch is coming back, and it's more than I can stand.


Recently, I came to realize Mom hasn't called to check on me or my progeny in the 28 years since I left the house. Life is much more peaceful without her.

5tripes
5tripes

Wow, I had no idea that only mothers parent their children. It's astonishing to me that the word "father" doesn't appear once in this article. More confirmation that criticisms of parents are almost exclusively leveled at women.

Anonnymouse
Anonnymouse

This is a very serious topic. I lived for a time with a family where the mother enjoyed the power she got from playing favorites. I feel very sorry for one child who could merely walk through a room and the mother would smirk and mock her after she was gone, creating doubt in people's minds about her worth. Yet a favored child's exploits became cherished stories within the family. That child eventually became  very successful while my friend, the scapegoat, struggled her whole life to find meaning about herself and acceptance within the family. She could never compete for love and win, which is what made the mother feel good. The competition. These things are tragic and what I would even call a crime against humanity for children whose parents use them as tools to boost their own self worth. 

Tammy Belka
Tammy Belka

What if everyone hates mom? Do they all cancel each other out then?

Lonez Zhavec
Lonez Zhavec

Very true. My younger bro and sis just recently told me how my mom favors me over them...and somehow they recent that fact. It doesnt really get all competetive, more like a sense of needing to prove themselves.

Dyna Pink
Dyna Pink

other wise nice to do that today,more than yesterday,not as much as tomorrow :D

Itza Balam Tepeu Schachtler
Itza Balam Tepeu Schachtler

from my own personal experience, do not rust mormons they will separate your families and exploit the females in every way possible.

_Mitchyy_
_Mitchyy_

@DeborahClay Guess I'm lucky to be the only child! because of less favoritism!

chungf
chungf

Aw shit, single-child homes are doomed. RT @TIMEHealthland: Everyone suffers when parents pick favorites | http://t.co/0OzpFEzs

PSPeralta
PSPeralta

@TIME @TIMEHealthland I can confirm that.

felixjossy1
felixjossy1

@TIME my mother did it and later regretted it

xmaseveeve
xmaseveeve

@TIME @TIMEHealthland 'a surprise, since previous work had only highlighted the effect of differential parenting on the targeted children.'

Daraghma1988
Daraghma1988

@TIME Detained without a charge or a trial, Samer Issawi has been on hunger strike for freedom since 204 day. Trend #OpFreeSamer

j1mmybrand
j1mmybrand

@JonBrand10 @EmilyBrand22 “@TIME: Parents who play favorites may be hurting the entire family http://t.co/M4GDT2lR (via @TIMEHealthland)”

whoiswinston
whoiswinston

@TIME @timehealthland well except the kid who gets a sweet bike. He makes out pretty awesome.

amjamareen
amjamareen

“@TIME: Parents who play favorites may be hurting the entire family | http://t.co/2KE04J6W (via @TIMEHealthland)”a must for good parenting

iammrlackey
iammrlackey

@5tripes  If Momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy. These words ring absolutely true -- I'll sign an affidavit saying it's so.

JonBrand10
JonBrand10

@j1mmybrand @emilybrand22 I have no response but laughter haha

EmilyBrand22
EmilyBrand22

@JonBrand10 @j1mmybrand YOURE JUST JEALOUS THAT THEY LOVE ME MORE THAN YOU.