New research from Brigham Young University shows that perceived preferential treatment of one child by parents can lead to alcohol, cigarette, and drug use by the less-favored children.
That’s in families that aren’t very close to each other — what researcher Alex Jensen, Ph.D., called “disengaged families.”
It appears that favoritism creates the biggest problems in families where love and support are scarce, according to Jensen.
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, he reports.
“With favoritism in disengaged families, it wasn’t just that they were more likely to use any substances, it also escalated,” Jensen said. “If they were already smoking, then they were more likely to drink also. Or if they were smoking and drinking, they were more likely to also use drugs.”
For his study, which appears in the Journal of Family Psychology, Jensen analyzed 282 families with teenage siblings. One interesting takeaway is that when kids were asked which sibling got preferential treatment, their perception often didn’t match reality, he said. And what he found is that perceptions matter more than reality.
“It’s not just how you treat them differently, but how your kids perceive it,” Jensen said. “Even in the case where the parents treated them differently, those actual differences weren’t linked to substance use — it was the perception.”
What should parents do?
“Show your love to your kids at a greater extent than you currently are,” Jensen said. “As simple as it sounds, more warmth and less conflict is probably the best answer.”
That advice is based on what the researchers saw in the data: The link between substance use and favoritism didn’t exist among families that take a strong interest in each other.
Jensen also recommends that parents look for unique things in each of their children.
“Every kid as they get older develops their own interests and start to have their own identity,” 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.”
** If you or someone you know is struggling with their children, contact Aspen Counseling Services to schedule an Initial Assessment.