University Study Says That When Parents Play Favorites, the Kids Pay the Price

A recent study on the impact of parental favoritism on their children is finally getting the attention it deserves. While it might seem like a truism to say that parental favoritism can harm children, a study by Brigham Young University professor Alex Jensen found that favoritism, even when it’s just perceived preferential treatment, can lead children who feel less favored to use alcohol, cigarettes and drugs.


Professionals in this field of family psychology refer to this as parents’ differential treatment (PDT). The very existence of a common acronym for this family dynamic points up just how impactful something we might accept as just so might be for the development of children.

Substance Abuse Increases among Children Who Perceive Parental Favoritism

According to the study, in families where preferential treatment is more dramatic, “the less favored child was 3.5 times more likely to use any of these substances.”  Jensen further clarifies this last point, saying, “It wasn’t just that they were more likely to use any substances, it also escalated.” That is to say, disconnected children who smoke are more likely to try alcohol and drugs as well.  Even without the study one can easily comprehend how children who feel that their parents treat them and their siblings differently might find themselves disaffected enough to follow a solemn path toward what the study describes as “delinquency and substance use.”

The Solution Is Simple: Show Your Children You Love Them More Often

One of the more fascinating, albeit alarming, findings of Jensen’s study was that the mere perception of favoritism affected children profoundly.  Children who felt that their parents favored a sibling reacted more to their own perceptions of that disparity than to any actual disparity as such.


So if that’s the case, and given that it seems natural for children to believe that their parents treat them differently, or favor one sibling over another, what are we as parents to do? Jensen recommends this simple advice: “Show your love to your kids at a greater extent than you currently are…more warmth and less conflict is probably the best answer.”

There you have it. In order to ensure that our children do not have to confront the deleterious affects of feeling less favored, we just have to show them that we love them more often, and reduce the amount of conflict they experience in the home.

You can read the entire article from the Journal of Family Psychiatry here.

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