Mom's Favoritism Stings, Even for Adults

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Even after kids move out, Mom's favoritism still matters. When Mom repeatedly singles out one adult child more than another, whether for praise or a slap on the wrist, she's unwittingly contributing to her offspring's depression, research announced last week suggests.

"Perceived favoritism from one's mother still matters to a child's psychological well-being, even if they have been living for years outside the parental home and have started families of their own," said study researcher Karl Pillemer, a Cornell University gerontologist. "It doesn't matter whether you are the chosen child or not, the perception of unequal treatment has damaging effects for all siblings."

Even Mom's favorites take a hit.

"Interestingly, being the favorite child has some serious drawbacks, research has found," Pillemer told LiveScience. "The favored child can feel guilty, and he or she can experience negative relationships with the other siblings, who may be resentful. With older parents, favored children may be expected to provide more care and assistance for the parent, leading to stress."

As for which children become Mom's favorites, Pillemer are still figuring this out. "Parents tend to prefer oldest or youngest (as opposed to middle) children, and they gravitate toward those children who are more similar to them in personal characteristics and values," Pillemer said.

Mom's favorites

The results are based on interviews conducted between August 2001 and January 2003 with 275 Boston-area mothers in their 60s and 70s, who had at least two living adult children. Researchers also surveyed the 671 offspring, whose average age was 43. Pillemer and colleague J. Jill Suitor of Purdue University detailed their results in the April issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

To gauge favoritism, the researchers asked the moms three questions: To which child in your family do you feel the most emotional closeness? If you became ill or disabled and needed help on a day-to-day basis, which child in your family would be most likely to help you? With which child do you have the most disagreements or arguments?

The majority of moms differentiated: 70 percent of mothers named a child they felt closest to; 79 percent named a child as the most likely caregiver; and 73 percent named a child she had the most arguments and disagreements with.

The adult children were more likely to believe their mom had a favorite child than was actually the case. Just 15 percent of children said there was no favoritism, but 30 percent of moms reported the same.

Perception of favoritism had more impact on well-being than actual favoritism. Depression scores were higher for adult children who believed their mom was closest to a particular child in the family. Adult children who reported their mothers had greater conflict with a particular sibling also reported higher depression.

The scientists didn't find a link between depression and a mom's actual differentiation among her children regarding conflict or emotional closeness.

Parent-child relationships

"We know that the quality of relationships between adult children and their parents can have a significant effect on children's psychological well-being," Pillemer said. "In addition, parent-child relationships continue after children leave the home." Just as the relationships continue, so do the effects of favoritism, he added.

And, kids will be kids, and even as adults. Siblings compare themselves to one another, and they compare their relationships with mom. Favoritism by mom has also been shown to have a detrimental effect on the quality of sibling relations in adulthood.

Parents don't condone the favoritism themselves.

"Most parents worry about showing favoritism (if they are aware of it)," Pillemer said. "Ideally, parents to the greatest degree possible can avoid obvious remarks about favoritism, or comparing one child to the other in discussions."

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.