Kids who think parents play favorites may be more likely to use alcohol, drugs

Brigham Young University
Researcher Alex Jensen shares a happy moment with his two daughters. Helping siblings feel they’re equally loved is sometimes a big challenge in parenting.Today

Where there are siblings, there’s bound to be conflict over who is the parents’ favorite. 

In some families, the very perception that mom or dad is treating one child better makes it more likely that the other child smokes, drinks, or uses drugs, new research has found.

“It doesn’t just matter how you treat your kids differently, it also matters how they perceive it,” Alex Jensen, a Brigham Young University professor and the lead author of the study, told TODAY Parents.

“You have to treat them as individuals, but then you have to take care to help them each feel loved.”

Researcher Alex Jensen shares a happy moment with his two daughters. Helping siblings feel they’re equally loved is sometimes a big challenge in parenting.Today

The study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, examined 282 families, each with two teenage siblings.

The teens were asked to describe their home life, including how much warmth and conflict there was in their family, and whether they felt their sibling was receiving preferential treatment. They also reported whether they had smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol or used marijuana in the past year.

The family dynamics made all the difference, the study found.

When there was lots of warmth and intimacy at home, the parents’ perceived favoritism didn’t matter very much, Jensen said.

In the families where there was little warmth but lots of conflict, the kids already had the highest levels of delinquent behavior, he added.

But the results for one kind of household — where there was both little warmth or conflict — stood out.

Jensen called this the “disengaged family,” one in which parents provide food, shelter, but little emotional closeness. Children who saw themselves as a bit less favored than their siblings in those homes were twice as likely to engage in substance use, Jensen said. That number rose to 3.5 times as likely if they felt they were a lot less favored.

He admits the study has its limitations: You could argue that kids who are using alcohol or drugs are going to be the less favorite child and are aware of the fact.

But the overall take-away for parents is to become more engaged, he added.

“Have a greater amount of warmth in the family. Spend more time with your kids, show them more affection, show them more love, show more concern for the kids,” Jensen said.

“Because when the warmth in the family was high, then the favoritism didn’t matter so much.”

Jensen wasn’t surprised there’s sometimes a disconnect between children who feel their sibling is the favorite and parents who think they’re treating their offspring equally. Kids will complain about getting different chore loads or bed times than their brother or sister, for example, even though parents know they’re appropriate for each sibling.

Still, it’s important for families to realize that simply the perception playing favorites can have an impact.

“I don’t know if you can say you need to make sure each kid feels like they’re the favorite child, but you need to at least try to make it so kids don’t feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick,” Jensen said.

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