BYU Professor Finds Playing Favorites Is Detrimental to Families

Contributed By Ryan Morgenegg, Church News staff writer

  • 13 November 2014

Professor Alex Jensen (seen here with his two daughters) discovered that preferential treatment of one sibling over another may cause long-term negative effects.  Photo by BYU.

Article Highlights

  • Parents should look for unique things each child is building into his or her identity.
  • Children who view themselves as less favored are almost twice as likely to use alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs.
  • Heavenly Father is our ultimate parenting example.

“We should also look to our Heavenly Father as an example. By no means does He give us all the exact same treatment. We are all born into different situations and have different strengths and weaknesses, but He loves all of us tremendously and seems to help us in our individual circumstances by doing what is best for us individually. As mortal parents we should strive to do the same as well.” —Alex Jensen, researcher and BYU professor

PROVO, UTAH

Ask the members of most large families, and many opinions exist about who is the favored child. New research from Brigham Young University might give parents some ideas about why they shouldn’t play favorites. It seems perception of favoritism can be linked to drug use in certain families. Favoritism in parenting is a complex topic, but researchers share some important points they gleaned from the study.

BYU professor Alex Jensen analyzed 282 families with teenage siblings for a study that appears in The Journal of Family Psychology. “The main criteria were that families had at least two children between the ages of 12 and 18,” said Brother Jensen. “The adolescents also couldn’t have any major developmental delays or disabilities. Overall these were typical Midwestern families.”

The key to the study is the type of family dynamics present, said Brother Jensen. For families that aren’t very close to each other—so-called “disengaged” families—favoritism was strongly associated with alcohol, cigarette, and drug use by the less-favored children.

“You’ve got to keep in mind that these disengaged families, however, aren’t completely neglectful families. These are normal, everyday families where the parents likely love their children,” said Brother Jensen. “Their children just feel like they aren’t very close to their parents. These families also didn’t fight very often. So the caution for parents is that if your teen seems to feel distanced from your family, and they feel like they are getting less-favored treatment, they are at heightened risk for substance abuse.”

According to the study, in disengaged families, children who view themselves as slightly less favored were almost twice as likely to use alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs. If the preferential treatment was perceived to be dramatic, the less-favored child was 3.5 times more likely to use any of these substances.

“In families that were more close-knit and had really good relationships there was no link between favoritism and substance use,” said Brother Jensen. “To add one more layer of complexity, the worst-case scenario for families was to have lots of conflict. Families that fought all the time and weren’t very positive with each other had children who had far and away the highest rates of substance use, even higher than less-favored kids in those disengaged families.”

Researcher Alex Jensen, assistant professor at Brigham Young University, has learned that favoring one daughter over another could create problems. Photo by BYU.

When people are asked which sibling gets preferential treatment, their perception often doesn’t match reality, the study said. But that’s where things get interesting, because it is the perception that matters more than reality.

“A very slight majority of youth actually tend to report that they get favored treatment, even if just a little,” said Brother Jensen. “But that still leaves a large chunk who feel like they are not getting favored treatment. A big takeaway from this study is that their perceptions didn’t necessarily match reality, and both siblings may have felt like they weren’t favored, or both may have felt like they were favored.”

For parents worrying about keeping score and managing perceptions of fairness, Brother Jensen has some simple advice: “Show your love to your kids at a greater extent than you currently are. As simple as it sounds, more warmth and less conflict is probably the best answer.”

Brother Jensen also recommends that parents look for unique things that each of their children are trying to build into their identity. “Every kid, as they get older, develops their own interests and starts to have their own identity,” Brother Jensen said. “If you value that and respect that and, as a parent, support what they see as their identity, that would help them feel loved.

“We should also look to our Heavenly Father as an example. By no means does He give us all the exact same treatment. We are all born into different situations and have different strengths and weaknesses, but He loves all of us tremendously and seems to help us in our individual circumstances by doing what is best for us individually. As mortal parents we should strive to do the same as well. As a family grows and develops, each child will be different and have different needs. At one season of life that may mean one child gets more focus and attention than another child.”

This is Jensen’s first semester teaching in BYU’s School of Family Life but not his first publication at BYU. As an undergraduate, he coauthored a study that assessed the impact video games have on relationships and another on the role of siblings in fostering good mental health. That helped launch him into graduate school at Purdue, where he earned a Ph.D. in human development. In 2013 his department at Purdue gave him the Outstanding Doctoral Student Award.

The research was funded through a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism awarded to Shawn D. Whiteman of Purdue.