From teaching them simple social skills to aiding in their moral development, parents play a vital role in their children’s lives. One specific aspect that parents can have a large impact on in their children’s lives is in the relationships that their children have with each other. Sibling relationships can be one of the longest lasting relationships in an individual’s life and can create a good environment for personal growth.1 Because these relationships are unique and important, not only do siblings have a large duty to each other to nurture their sibling relationships, it is also the responsibility of parents to encourage and support these sibling relationships. Parents can do this by being aware of how they parent each of their children. Parental differential treatment, when parents treat their children differently, can have an impact on the bond’s siblings have with each other. Being aware of what parental differential treatment is, why it happens, and how to prevent it, parents can ensure that it does not become a factor that comes in between siblings and weakens their bonds.
Parental differential treatment occurs when parents treat their children differently. This can even lead to parental favoritism.2,3 Even if parents are not actually participating in parental differential treatment, if children perceive that it is occurring, they can still be negatively affected.2 Research has found that parental differential treatment can result in a lower self-esteem, more depressive symptoms, and more incidents of anxiety and aggression in the less favored child.2,3 Children often seek approval and acceptance from their parents so, when they feel they are not receiving this, they may act out as a way to get attention. Parental differential treatment can also impact sibling relationships.3,4 When parental differential treatment is present, there tends to be less warmth and more conflict between siblings. This can result in a weaker sibling bond.3
One factor that can play a large role in parental differential treatment among siblings is social comparison. Social comparison takes place when an individual compares himself or herself to another individual in order to evaluate who he or she is.4 Social comparison can often result in more depressive symptoms and weaker bonds between individuals who engage in it.10 Social comparison often occurs between similar individuals. This means that same gender individuals and those who have grown up in similar environments are more likely to engage in social comparison.6 For these reasons, siblings, especially same gender siblings, are more likely to engage in social comparison.5 When parental differential treatment is present, siblings will often pick up on this treatment through social comparison - comparing the way their parents treat them versus how their parents treat their siblings.
Why Does Parental Differential Treatment Happen?
Parental differential treatment may happen for several reasons. First, each child is different. Each child has their own individual personalities and may differ by temperament.2 These differences can make parenting individual children challenging. For example, while some children have a more easy-going temperament, other children may have a more difficult temperament that can result in behaviors such as anger and aggression.7 These differences can cause some parents to show preference toward one child over another because their behavior may be easier to handle.
Second, children’s different life stages can also result in them being treated differently.6 For example, a sibling in college will probably need more financial aid than the sibling who is in middle school. An older sibling who may be experiencing a bad break up may be in need of extra emotional support in comparison to a younger sibling who got a bad grade on a paper.4 While the difference in treatment due to varying situations and developmental needs is understandable, children may still be sensitive to the increased parental attention shown to another child and be negatively affected by it.
How Can Parents Prevent or Lessen the Effects of Parental Differential Treatment?
“The Family: A Proclamation to the World”8 states that the family is the center of God’s plan. Each child needs a chance to feel the love and support of both heavenly and mortal parents to succeed. So, it is important that parents do all that is in their power to ensure that parental differential treatment is prevented. This will help to make sure that their children’s development and the quality of sibling relationships does not suffer. Here are a few ways that parents can reduce parental differential treatment if it is occurring.
Open Communication. Parents should be willing to discuss with their children their reasoning for actions that may be seen as differential treatment. They should also be willing to hear their children’s points of view and understand their feelings in order to make adjustments when needed. Open communication can be used to clarify or modify rules which may reduce conflict between parents and their children.2 This increased understanding can positively impact sibling relationships. It can create a better environment for these issues to be quickly dealt with and can put children’s minds at ease regarding perceived parental differential treatment. Children should also be helped to understand that parents are doing their best to shape their parenting to individual needs. This can mean that to treat them fairly, parents may need at times to treat children differently.
Care and Warmth. Parents need to make themselves emotionally available to each of their children. This availability could look like checking in with a child who is having a hard day and needs to talk or respecting distance when a child needs to work out their frustrations on their own. When parents are usually emotionally available, the child can be confident that they have a unique connection with their parents. Parental care and warmth can also positively impact the strength of sibling relationships.9 It can reduce the level of conflict in the home, which can then help to foster sibling relationships.
One-On-One Approach. Spending one-on-one time with each child can be another way to avoid parental differential treatment. It can be easy for children to feel lost in the busy life of a family so, spending one-on-one time with each child can create a solid foundation for a parent-child relationship. Through this individual one-on-one time, children can build a relationship with each parent. These individual relationships can help children know that their parents see their needs and hear their concerns apart from their other siblings. This one-on-one time can be as simple as going on errands together and taking advantage of the time to talk about the child’s experiences and concerns. Regardless of whether the time spent together is a small or large act, any time together is valuable to children. It can strengthen the parent-child bond and help prevent parental differential treatment.
As parents create strong, individual relationships with their children, negative impacts of actual or perceived parental differential treatment can successfully be prevented.
Written by Breanna Hess, and edited by Professor Julie Haupt, Brittany Passmore, and professors Alex Jensen and Stephen F. Duncan, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. April 1, 2019.
- Howe, N., & Recchia, H. (2014). Sibling relationships as a context for learning and development. Early Education and Development, 25(2), 155–159. doi: 10.1080/10409289.2014.857562
- Jensen, A. C., Whiteman, S. D., Rand, J. S., & Fingerman, K. L. (2017). You’re just like your dad: Intergenerational patterns of differential treatment of siblings. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 72(6), 1073-1083.
- Meunier, J. C., Roskam, I., Stievenart, M., Moortele, G. V. D., Browne, D. T., & Wade, M. (2012). Parental differential treatment, child’s externalizing behavior and sibling relationships: Bridging links with child’s perception of favoritism and personality, and parents’ self-efficacy. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29(5), 612-638.
- Jensen, A. C., Whiteman, S. D., Fingerman, K. L., & Birditt, K. S. (2013). ‘Life still isn’t fair’: Parental differential treatment of young adult siblings. Journal of Marriage and Family, 75(2), 438-452. doi:10.1111/jomf.12002
- Ponappa, S., Bartle, H. S., Holowacz, E., & Ferriby, M. (2017). The family system and depressive symptoms during the college years: Triangulation, parental differential treatment, and sibling warmth as predictors. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 43(1), 145–158. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1111/jmft.12175
- Schaefer, M. K., & Salafia, E. H. B. (2014). The connection of teasing by parents, siblings, and peers with girls' body dissatisfaction and boys' drive for muscularity: The role of social comparison as a mediator. Eating Behaviors, 15(4), 599-608. doi: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2014.08.018
- Rolan, E., & Marceau, K. (2018). Individual and sibling characteristics: Parental differential treatment and adolescent externalizing behaviors. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, doi:10.1007/s10964-018-0892-8
- The First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles. (1995, November). The family: A proclamation to the world. Ensign. 102.
- Portner, L. C., & Riggs, S. A. (2016). Sibling relationships in emerging adulthood: Associations with parent–child relationship. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 25(6), 1755-1764. doi:10.1007/s10826-015-0358-5
- Butzer, B., & Kuiper, N. A. (2006). Relationships between the frequency of social comparisons and self-concept clarity, intolerance of uncertainty, anxiety, and depression. Personality and Individual Differences, 41(1), 167-176. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2005.12.017
As parents notice the different personalities, needs, and desires in their children, they may seek for answers to questions or best parenting practices from a prize-winning book, psychologist, or blog. While these may be helpful, the perfect examples and teachings about parenting come from our Heavenly Parents. These teachings and examples can guide earthly parents as they seek to fulfill the call from The Family: A Proclamation to the World “to love and care for each other and for their children.”1
President Gordon B. Hinckley once said, “Never forget that these little ones are the sons and daughters of God and that yours is a custodial relationship to them, that He was a parent before you were parents and that He has not relinquished His parental rights or interest in these His little ones.”2
In the heavenly realm, our Heavenly Father presided over the council where two plans were presented. One plan would take away our individuality while the other plan presented an opportunity to develop as individuals at the cost of the Savior’s atonement. Through this plan of salvation, all would experience trials, make mistakes, and acquire knowledge and traits through experience. Since we would differ in our choices and experiences, we would each need different comforts, counsel, and care. Because “Christ does know us as He has walked the thorny, difficult, rock-strewn path of our lives… He understands.”3
In like manner, parents can recognize the need to treat their children differently to respond to the specific needs, challenges, and personalities of each child. At times, treating children differently may lead some children to perceive that their parents have favorites. However, parents can turn to our Heavenly Parents’ example to be “no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34) and treat children as individuals not as favorites.
One by One
Just as Jesus Christ “took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them” (3 Nephi 17:21), parents can address their children’s needs in a one-by-one way based on their unique personalities. Understanding can come as parents observe and study their children’s dispositions, gifts, and challenges. President Brigham Young invited parents to “bring up your children in the love and fear of the Lord; study their dispositions and their temperaments, and deal with them accordingly.”4
The Savior’s ultimate sacrifice was performed for each one of us. One by one. The Savior’s selfless act “was not quick, casual, or impersonal. The Savior felt our pains and sins on an individual and personal basis, and He understands, knows, and loves each of us personally.”5 In the same way, the interactions with our children should not be quick, casual, or impersonal but should embody understanding and love for each one individually.
Communicate your Intentions
One loving father often stated to his children: “To treat you fairly, I have to treat you differently.” His children felt his love as they saw him time after time ministering to their needs as individuals. As parents seek to address these individual needs for each child, they can also communicate reasons for the different treatment to other children rather than assuming they will understand. In this way, children can learn that fairness or sensitivity is the intention of differential treatment—not unfairness or favoritism.
For example, parents may look to the example of the parable of the prodigal son. In the story, a father with two sons gave each a divided amount of riches. One son left and spent all the riches while the other stayed to help his father. The son who left was in trouble and decided to return. Upon his arrival, the father welcomed him with open arms and a celebration. However, the son who stayed behind was angry saying, “these man years do I serve thee…and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come…thou hast killed for him the fatted calf” (Luke 15:29-30).
The father responded, “Son, thou art ever with me… we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy
brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:31-32). The son who left required support upon his arrival, though the other son chose to feel ignored and cheated. The father communicated with his son the reason why he treated the other son the way he did.
By communicating parental intentions about reasons for providing different monetary support, time, or consequences for behavior, children can come to better understand the need for differential treatment in families. As parents seek to address children’s needs one by one, treat them fairly, and communicate intentionally with them, a sense of favoritism can disappear replaced by love and understanding.
Written by Heather Smith, edited by professors Julie H. Haupt and Stephen F. Duncan, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. February 28, 2020.
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Family: A Proclamation to the World, paragraph 6.
- Hinckley, G. B. (1996, November). Excerpts from recent addresses of President Gordon B. Hinckley. Ensign.
- Holland, J. R. (2016, October). The savior understands me [Video File]. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (1997). Teachings of the President of the Church: Brigham Young, p. 337.
- Jewkes, B. (2017, March). One by one. Institute manual.