Everyone knows that you’re not supposed to have a favorite child. Let’s be honest -- there are days when you can’t help but like one of your kids more than their siblings. I’m all of a sudden reminded of the road trip we took a few years ago when our youngest wasn’t quite 2. Eight hours is a long time to scream in the backseat, and I’m pretty sure we liked her big sister better that day.

That’s a fair and natural part of parenting. Other times it will occur when one child needs more attention, like when you have a newborn in the house, or a child has special needs. But what happens when these favoritisms turn into the rule rather than being circumstantial and short-lived?

Obviously, the disfavored child will have issues. They may suffer feelings of inadequacy, act out in school to get attention, and have problems with social relationships. Now, new studies show that extreme favoritism also is detrimental to the family as a whole -- even to the favored child.

Lead author on the study Jenny Jenkins says that playing favorites with your kids can cause lasting damage to their relationships with their brothers and sisters, which outweighs any positive effect of getting more parental attention in childhood. She observed the behavior of 400 Canadian families over four years to study family dynamics when favoritism is employed, rather than just examining the individual relationships between parent and child.

She was surprised to discover an association between differential parenting and mental health outcomes for children in families. It makes sense when you think about it. The disfavored children will feel resentment toward the favorite, and the favorite may feel guilt over the partiality. These things are bound to damage sibling relationships in the long run.

The other thing that might be causing the “kids of favoritism” to have more mental health issues than their peers is the lack of consistency from the parents. How are kids supposed to make sense of a world when parents treat them with drastically different attitudes?

ABC Senior Medical Contributor Jennifer Ashton points out that this is not about tailoring your parenting to suit the needs of each individual child. The correlation only occurred in dramatic examples of favoritism, where parents were negative to one child while being positive to another.

So what can we do about it? Try to treat our kids fairly. Take notice if we’re harder on one or easier on another, and ask ourselves why. Be mindful and aware and consistent. And if all else fails -- start a therapy jar.

Do you ever play favorites with your kids?


Image via Life Mental Health/Flickr