Effects of parental favoritism, left unchecked, can be long lasting. A study titled Mothers’ Differentiation and Depressive Symptoms Among Adult Children found siblings who sensed that their mom consistently favored or rejected one child over another were more likely to exhibit depression in middle age. The study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, also revealed that these possible outcomes can affect both the favored and unfavored child.
Perception is everything
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re the chosen child or not, the perception of unequal treatment has damaging effects for all siblings,” explains Dr. Karl Pillemer, Ph.D., director of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging and one of the authors of the article.
“The less favored kids may have ill will toward their mother or preferred sibling, and being the favored child brings resentment from one’s siblings and the added weight of greater parental expectations.”
Long-term effects of being the favored child are not all negative. Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D. asserts that there are, in fact, lots of advantages – including a bolstered self-esteem.
“The favorite child often grows up feeling confident and powerful with an attitude of ‘I can get things done,'” says Dr. Libby, author of The Favorite Child: How a Favorite Impacts Every Family Member for Life.
Dr. Libby points out that every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has been the favorite child.
“In interviews with Harry Truman’s siblings during and after his presidency, they revealed that their mother loved them all equally – but there always something special between Harry and mom,” Dr. Libby explains.
On the flip side, in the long-term, favorite children may struggle with intimate relationships when they find that no one can possibly love them as much as the parent who favored them.
“They’re more likely to be depressed because they spent so much of their lives trying to court parental favor that they may not have developed their own personality,” Dr. Libby says.
“Likewise, the overlooked child, who didn’t have to do the ‘pleasing dance,’ may have been free to experience the things he or she wanted to experience and to be the person he or she wanted to be. On the other end of the extreme is the unfavored child, who is often on the receiving end of the parent’s anger.”
The unfavored child
The unfavored child perhaps stands to suffer the most – even long after he or she has left home whether it be through depression, weakened self-esteem or a chronic need to feel special. And in many cases, sibling relationships are strained as resentment from favoritism breeds.
“I see patients who, even well into their 50s, carry feelings about being the favored or unfavored child,” Dr. Libby says. “I have a patient in his 60s whose mom is still alive. He still feels slighted when his elderly mom needs something and turns to his sister. He still wants to be seen as special to his mother.”
Dr. Brenda Volling, director and research professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for Human Growth and Development, studies sibling relationships and knows all too well the devastating effects that can result from sibling relationships gone wrong particularly due to parental favoritism.
“When you’re young, you have to live in the same household,” she says. “When kids have grown and left the house, you’ll see a lot of instances where siblings avoid each other to the point where they haven’t talked in five years.
“The relationship can be that strained. And when parents get older, sibling rivalries don’t necessarily end. They often rear their ugly heads again.”
This post was originally published in 2011 and has been updated for 2016.