When You Don’t Treat Your Kids the Same: Parental Differential Treatment


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Does favoritism have consequences? Image by phaewilk.

You’ve heard it said about children. You may have even said it yourself. “I treat them all the same.”

But what if parents don’t treat their children the same – or what if children just think parents don’t?

Dr. Alexander Jensen of Pennsylvania State University and Dr. Shawn D. Whiteman of Purdue University investigated the result of parental differential treatment, or PDT on children.

The research is grounded in Social Comparison Theory (SCT), developed by Leon Festinger in the 1950s who noted the “drive for self evaluation” and the “necessity for such evaluation being based on comparison with other persons.

In other words, people naturally form opinions of themselves based on comparisons with others. In the current study, the authors predict those children who are less favored, or who believe they are less favored in comparison with a sibling, will be more likely to report using drugs and alcohol.

How to Measure Differential Treatment?

In the famous Bible story, Joseph’s father gave him a special coat – which made his brothers murderously jealous.  In this instance, both preferential treatment appears to exist as well as the perception of differential treatment (Joseph knew his coat was special.)  In day to day life, however, how someone is treated can be difficult to measure.

The authors write, an “important principle of SCT is that comparisons can be either subconscious or conscious, and both impact well-being.” Dr. Jensen notes psychologists have identified two different measures of PDT, perception scores and difference scores.

The researchers explain the difference: “Perception-based measures address PDT explicitly by assessing a youth’s perceptions of how he or she is treated compared with a brother or sister.”  This measurement uncovers conscious beliefs.

On the other hand, difference scores measures use “reports from each individual sibling or from a  separate reporter (e.g., a parent, child, or researcher) on how parents treat each sibling without regard to the parental treatment another sibling may receive. The separate reports are then used to create a numerical description of the discrepant treatment.” Difference scores, because they incorporate the observations of more than one person “may measure some level of comparisons unaware to the individual sibling.”

Treating Kids Different: The Study

Jensen and Whiteman studied 326 families for a total of 978 participants drawn from seven counties in the Midwest and identified by a marketing list.  Each family group included a parent and two siblings between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Although the researchers only interviewed one parent, children reported on their treatment from both mothers and fathers. Twins were excluded.

52% of the children had siblings of the same sex. Parents answered background and demographic questions, and both siblings reported on interactions with parents.

The researchers hypothesized that intimacy and conflict would affect perceptions of  differential treatment and rates of delinquency. Children provided answers to questions about intimacy such as “How important is she/he to you” and rated their responses on a five point scale.

Children rated levels of conflict on a six point scale, reporting on items including “chores, homework and grades, activities with friends, saving and spending money.

The adolescents rated statement such as “My mother/father treats my sibling better than she/he treats me” on a five point scale to capture perceptions of differential treatment.

The adolescents answered 21 questions about cigarette, alcohol and marijuana use over the past year, rating their use on a six point scale from “not at all” or “zero use” to “20 occasions or more.

Parental Differential Treatment and Delinquency: The Results

Mother’s treatment of children matters. Image by crazyconfederate.

As predicted by Jensen and Whiteman, both difference scores (a combined measure of the siblings views on favoritism) and individual perception of favoritism were related to delinquency – but difference scores and individual perceptions of favoritism were not highly correlated.

In other words, reported favoritism by siblings and individual perception of being less favored were related to higher levels of substance abuse… But siblings and individuals did not always agree on how much favoritism occurred.

In an exclusive interview with Decoded Science, Dr. Jensen explains the reason for the difference between the measures,

I think that the correlations are probably low because our perceptions don’t always match reality.  It’s true that measuring any type of unconscious perception of favoritism is very difficult.  But conscious perceptions are very easy, and measuring objective favoritism might be impossible.

The researchers conclude “less favored treatment and the perception of less favored treatment was linked to greater participation in delinquent activities and substance use. In addition, in several instances, difference scores for youth in affectively mild and intense families were indirectly linked to delinquency and substance use through the perception of PDT.”

In sum, the perception of differential treatment was linked to substance abuse in adolescents even in families without a lot of conflict.

In the affectively mild families, the outcomes varied by parental role (less intimate fathers, less favorable treatment from mothers), indicating that the roles of parents still have different psychological impact.

Dr. Jensen told Decoded Science that past research has found links to father’s behavior. He states, “I was a little surprised that maternal treatment mattered more for substance use, past work would have lead me to think with these types of behaviors fathers’ treatment would matter more.  That past work, however, looked more at differences in treatment as opposed to siblings’ perceptions of differences in treatment.  Since the effect for mothers was with perceptions of favoritism that may account for that finding.”  Once again, the perceptions of treatment mattered.

Favored Children: Implications of the Research

What children believe to be true about preferential treatment can have serious consequences.  Additionally, families with a lot of conflict had children that were more likely to use substances like alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana.

Maybe it’s time to take out a ruler to measure that slice of cake on the dinner table.

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