Parents Who Play Favorites Hurt The Whole Family

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

A team of investigators from McMaster University and the University of Rochester recently conducted a study on differential parenting and discovered that this behavior not only impacted the child who receives less attention, but other children in the family as well.

According to the researchers, differential parenting — more commonly known as simply ℠playing favorites´ — occurs when parents shows more positive feedback to one child and more negative feedback to another. The study was conducted over a four-year period and looked at the broader impact of differential parenting on the whole family. The findings of the study were recently published in the journal Child Development.

“Past studies have looked at the effects of differential parenting on the children who get more negative feedback, but our study focused on this as a dynamic operating at two levels of the family system: one that affects all children in the family as well as being specific to the child at the receiving end of the negativity,” said the study´s lead researcher Jennifer M. Jenkins, the Atkinson Chair of Early Child Development and Education at the University of Toronto.

Nearly 400 Canadian families with a maximum of four children participated in the study. The research team collected data on children between the ages of two and five using self-reported incidents by mothers as well as observations by researchers who observed and recorded parent-child interactions at the families´ homes. Some of these parent-child interactions included the ways children played without toys or the methods that mothers used to tell stories to their kids.

The researchers hypothesized that cumulative risks from differential parenting can result in children being at a higher risk of developing mental health issues, which might include aggressive behavior, problems with emotional development and attention-deficit disorders. The results of the study confirmed their hunch.

Their data showed that children who were given more negative treatment experienced more attention and emotional problems than their siblings who received more positive treatment. However, they also found that even the children who received more positive treatment were at a higher risk of developing these mental health issues compared to children from families in which all children were treated equally.

The team of investigators also utilized special statistical techniques to look at the relationship between all family members and developed a cumulative risk index to determine the number of present or past stress factors in each mother´s life, including economic hardships, abuse, education level, history of depression or single parenting.

The researchers found that mothers who experienced more of these risk factors were significantly more likely to engage in differential parenting than mothers who experienced fewer or none of these risk factors. In short, mothers who were under more emotional and financial stress were more likely to treat their children unequally.

Outside experts reviewing the study have pointed out that these risk factors are often outside of the parent´s control.

“While all parents know that it’s best to avoid comparing siblings to each other, and to strive for equity in terms of attention, optimal parenting of this sort is incredibly difficult when faced with multiple risk factors, such as poverty, mental illness, and a history of adverse childhood experiences,” Dr. Rahil Briggs, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told ABC News.

“While none of this surprises me, it further supports the claim that we must support families, especially those families with young children, to help ameliorate some of these impacts of risk,” said Briggs, who was not affiliated with the study.

“In all likelihood, this occurred because differential parenting sets up a dynamic that is very divisive,” concluded Jenkins.

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