Parents may not admit it, but picking favorites among their children is a
fairly common practice. Now, new research reveals that this pattern -- known as
differential parenting -- is not only detrimental to the child who receives the
negative feedback, but also the entire family.
Additionally, this new study shows that the more drastic the parenting styles
between children, the worse the outcome of the mental health of all the
"This was really surprising," said Jenny Jenkins, professor in the department
of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto and
lead author of the study. "We expected differential parenting to operate
stronger within the parent-child dynamic. However, differential parenting had a
stronger effect on the entire family."
"Differential parenting"-- giving mostly positive feedback to one child while
mostly negative feedback to another -- has long been linked to negative effects
for the targeted child. Until this study published Tuesday in the journal Child
Development, however, its broader effects on the family as a whole had not been
studied in detail. In her four-year longitudinal study, Jenkins observed the
behavior of 400 Canadian families through direct in-home observation and self
She and her colleagues found that children in families affected by
differential parenting showed higher incidence of problems with attention and
"Sibling divisiveness is a known result of differential parenting, with
lasting effects into adolescence and adulthood," she said.
In addition, researchers found that differential parenting was linked to
other factors -- some of which were present in the home environment, and others
that the parents had experienced in the past.
Dr. Rahil Briggs, assistant professor of Pediatrics at the Albert Einstein
College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y., said these factors stacked the deck
against some parents.
"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," said
Briggs, who was not involved with the study.
In short, mothers who were under emotional and financial stress had a harder
time being fair to all of their children when parenting.
"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 is also director of
Montefiore Medical Center's Healthy Steps, a program aimed at getting parents
and children off to a healthy start with the help of specialists in child
development and behavior. "The experiences of young children create a foundation
upon which future development and behavior is built, and it's really imperative
that this foundation be strong."
While the study only shows an association between differential parenting and
mental health outcomes for children in families -- not that one of these things
necessarily causes the other -- it gives us very valuable information into
family dynamics and the importance of parenting with fairness.
"Parents don't set out to be horrible to one child versus another," Jenkins
said. "There are many environmental factors that lead parents to these actions.
"As parents, we have to be aware of these factors, and not let them affect
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