Study: Moms' favoritism tied to depression in grown children

Jun 24, 2010 By Ted Boscia

(PhysOrg.com) -- Whether mom's golden child or her black sheep, siblings who sense that their mother consistently favors or rejects one child over others are more likely to show depressive symptoms as adults.

Whether mom's golden or her black sheep, siblings who sense that their mother consistently favors or rejects one child over others are more likely to show as middle-aged adults, finds a new study by Cornell gerontologist Karl Pillemer.

Prior research has shown that parental favoritism among siblings negatively affects mental health and often triggers behavioral problems in children, teens and young adults, but the survey of 275 Boston-area families, co-directed by Purdue Jill Suitor, is the first to show that such harmful effects persist long into adulthood.

"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 Pillemer, the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the Department of Human Development and associate dean for extension and outreach in the College of Human Ecology, about his paper in the Journal of Marriage and Family (April 2010).

"It doesn't matter whether you are the chosen child or not, the perception of unequal treatment has damaging effects for all siblings," he added. "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."

Favoritism may be difficult for mothers to avoid, however, as the researchers found that 70 percent of moms surveyed named a child to whom they felt closest and only 15 percent of children saw equal treatment by their mothers. Similarly, 92 percent of children and 73 percent of mothers specified a child with whom the mother battled most frequently.

The study, which controlled for family size, race and other factors, drew on interviews with 275 mothers in their 60s and 70s with at least two living adult children and also surveys of 671 offspring of the women. In addition to questions about emotional closeness or excessive conflict with a particular child, mothers and children were asked about the mother's expectations for who will care for her when she becomes ill or disabled. When designated a child as her caregiver, all children suffered greater depressive symptoms, though the children's perceptions of their mother's preference did not relate to their mental health.

The findings could lead to new therapies for practitioners who work with later-life families, Pillemer said. "We have a powerful norm in our society that parents should treat kids equally, so favoritism can be something of a taboo topic. If counselors can help older parents and adult bring some of these issues into the open, it may help prevent family conflict from arising."

Explore further: Precarious work schedules common among younger workers

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Empty nest syndrome may not be bad after all, study finds

Feb 21, 2008

One day they are crawling, the next day they are driving and then suddenly they aren’t kids anymore. As children reach adulthood, the parent-child relationship changes as parents learn to adapt to newly independent children. ...

Sibling relationships reflect family dynamics

Nov 15, 2006

Most children in the United States grow up with sisters and brothers. Connections that usually last a lifetime, these relationships can be strained at times, especially during childhood. New research concludes that sibling ...

Parental involvement key to preventing child bullying

May 03, 2010

Communities across the United States are developing programs to address child bullying. New research shows that parents can play an important role in preventing their children from becoming bullies in the first place.

Recommended for you

Precarious work schedules common among younger workers

44 minutes ago

One wish many workers may have this Labor Day is for more control and predictability of their work schedules. A new report finds that unpredictability is widespread in many workers' schedules—one reason ...

Girls got game

1 hour ago

Debi Taylor has worked in everything from construction development to IT, and is well and truly socialised into male-dominated workplaces. So when she found herself the only female in her game development ...

Computer games give a boost to English

17 hours ago

If you want to make a mark in the world of computer games you had better have a good English vocabulary. It has now also been scientifically proven that someone who is good at computer games has a larger ...

Saddam Hussein—a sincere dictator?

22 hours ago

Are political speeches manipulative and strategic? They could be – when politicians say one thing in public, and privately believe something else, political scientists say. Saddam Hussein's legacy of recording private discussions ...

User comments : 0