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Study Links Child Favoritism To Substance Use During Teen Years

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A new study shows children who perceive themselves to be the less-favored child are more likely to use substances like alcohol in their teen years.

A new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology shows that parental favoritism, real or perceived, can impact a teen’s likelihood of using substances like alcohol and cigarettes.

Brigham Young University professor Alex Jensen said the concept of favoritism is pervasive and can have lasting impact on a child.

“Sometimes we joke about who’s the favorite child in the family and even ask people that question, but it’s really a complex process and a complex idea,” Jensen said.

Jensen said one factor taken into account in the study is the actual differences in treatment. He said he sees this with his own daughters, who are different ages and at different ability levels.

“Parents are always going to be treating their children differently because they’re different people, but on the other hand you also have the idea of how kids feel about they’re being treated or kind of their perception,” Jensen said. “You can ask people who’s the favorite child in your family or does your mom or your dad treat you or your sibling better, so those are kind of two different facets of the whole idea of parental favoritism.”

Jensen coupled the actual differences in how kids are treated with the perceived differences to look at how favoritism affected kids during their teen years.

In his study, Jensen asked siblings in 300 families to first rate their relationship with each of their parents. Researchers then asked the kids if their parents had a favorite child, from which they hoped to understand the kid’s perception of sibling differences. Using this data, Jensen found that a child’s perception of favoritism is a more important factor in substance use than the actual parent/child relationship. Most importantly in predicting substance use, however, was the warmth of a family.

“In families that were more close-knit, they had more warmth, just overall better relationships in the families, in those families, when kids felt that they weren’t the favorite child, it didn’t really matter so much. It wasn’t linked to substance use, it wasn’t linked to any of the behaviors we looked at,” Jensen said.

He said children in disengaged families are more susceptible to the effects of favoritism, and are thus more likely to engage in substance use.

Jensen said he hopes the study helps parents reflect on how they treat their children.

“I think the implication is that parents need to not just be worried about how they are treating their kids differently, because you don’t have to treat them exactly the same because they are different people, they’re going to be different ages and different genders, but be concerned about how the kids feel about that, what they perceive,” Jensen said.

Jensen said the study results have made him more nervous and cautious in raising his own children. He said putting efforts into building a strong, gentle and loving household are good steps in cutting the risks of favoritism found in the study.