Parents who favor one child over another may increase the chance at least one of their children will abuse substances, according to new research that also says a child's perception of favoritism matters more than whether it's actually true.
In research published in the Journal of Family Psychology, Brigham Young University assistant professor Alex Jensen found that a child who grows up in a family that is low on warmth and interaction is more likely to drink, use drugs or smoke if he or she feels he or she not the favorite or is treated worse than a sibling.
Although the findings apply to those "disengaged" families, Jensen said it's good reason for all parents to ramp up the dose of love and positive interaction they regularly deliver to each of their children: "As simple as it sounds, more warmth and less conflict is probably the best thing to do," he said.
For the study, the basis of Jensen's dissertation at Purdue University, he analyzed interview data from 282 Midwestern non-twin pairs of siblings, ages 12 to 18, and one of their parents. They were asked about differential treatment by both parents, and their delinquency and substance abuse, among other things.
Families were classified as one of four different types, rated on the warmth of their interactions and the amount of conflict, but all were considered to be "normal."
"These are typical families, just some less engaged than others," Jensen said.
Families that were high on conflict and low on warmth, categorized as "hostile" families, experienced the most substance abuse, but it wasn't impacted by a child's perception of favoritism. Only in the "affectively mild" or disengaged families was a child's view of favoritism linked to increased substance abuse — and the amount of increase was notable, Jensen added.
Children who saw themselves as even slightly less-favored were twice as apt to use alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. Those who perceived significant favoritism were 3.5 times as likely to do abuse substances. And the abuse escalated.
"If they were already smoking, then they were more likely to drink, too. Smoking and drinking, they were more likely to use drugs, too," said Jensen.
There was also a very small association in those disengaged families between teens less favored by their fathers and delinquency, Jensen said. The finding was based on actual preferential treatment, not just perception.
The finding that perception matters more than reality builds on other studies that suggest differential treatment has a greater effect on behavior than behavior has on treatment. It's not simply that parents tend to favor a child who is better-behaved. Children who are not favored are more likely to act out, Jensen said.
Children usually know whether there's favoritism, said Dr. Nekeshia Hammond, a Brandon, Florida, psychologist who was not part of the study.
"Most get it right. But the most important thing is the perception," Hammond said. "If one feels another sibling is the favorite, it could lead to substance abuse because you start having feelings of depression, being unloved, low self-esteem."
For a parent to have a favorite child is not abnormal, she said.
"I see a lot of parents who feel guilty, 'I like this child better than that child.' That's a normal feeling, but they have to try not to have the children feel a vast difference in how they're parenting. It's not as if a parent dislikes one of the children. But perception can lead to either healthy or unhealthy behaviors," she added.
Teens understand and accept some differentiated treatment as both appropriate and inevitable, said Boston-based psychologist and substance abuse prevention expert Alex J. Packer, author of "How Rude!" They can tell the difference between "fair" and "unfair" preferential treatment.
"The harmful effects of favoritism occur when teens feel that the difference in how they are treated is not based in developmental fact or need, but merely bias and rejection," said Packer, who was not involved in the research.
Packer also said it's not possible or healthy to treat children identically: "Indeed, doing so could paradoxically create complaints of favoritism," he said.
The study showed that families who are loving and well-engaged don't see a link between substance abuse and favoritism. That alone is a reason to work on nurturing and warmth, according to Jensen.
"I think people have a hard time understanding what type of family they really are. But having better, closer relationships with your kids, especially the teenager, isn't going to do harm. It's only going to do good things," he said. "So regardless of what type of family you are, I think that if this is something you're concerned about, you should strive to have a better relationship with each child."
In the future, Jensen hopes to tease out more of the complexities, such as whether it matters if the children are boys, girls or a mix. He'd also like to look closely and separately at mom's favoritism versus dad's.
The research was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism awarded to Shawn D. Whiteman of Purdue, study co-author.
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