Treating each kid differently can affect whole family, study tells parents
Fri Sep 17, 2004
Sheryl Ubelacker, Canadian Press

TORONTO (CP) - Stacey and her mother seem to spend all their time arguing over the 15-year-old's less than stellar grades and non-stop social life. Emily, 6, can be sweet and lovable, but her frequent temper tantrums drive Mom wild. Justin, their straight-As, 10-year-old jock brother, seemingly can do no wrong.

And when push comes to shove in the siblings' ongoing jockeying for maternal attention, their verbal tussles inevitably end with Justin's retort: "Yeah, well Mom loves me best!"

In all probability, the mom in our composite family gives each of her kids an equal chunk of her heart. But if she treats each of her children differently, that could spell trouble for the individual siblings - and for the family as a whole, new research suggests.

Michael Boyle, an epidemiologist at Hamilton's McMaster University and lead author of the study, said researchers found that discrepancies in parental behaviour toward individual children, especially negative treatment such as coercion, disapproval and anger, were associated with increased emotional and behavioural problems among all the siblings - not just those who perceive themselves as "worse off."

"It has an overall effect on the family system and sense of support and sense of expectancy," said Boyle, who analysed three large studies that included thousands of families and almost 20,000 children, which cut across all socio-economic groups. A 1983 study looked at Ontario families, while a 1994 Canadian study and a 1992 U.S. investigation were both national in scope.

All the studies asked mothers to describe their behaviour towards each of their offspring. "On the positive side, moms might be asked the frequency with which they compliment or support the child in some particular way or the frequency in which they engaged in play or sport or other activities, he said. On the negative side, it would ask how often you get angry at this particular child versus that particular child, and a variety of questions like that."

A second set of questions asked moms to describe each child's behaviour and emotional state, a questionnaire that was also given to each child's teacher.

Mothers were the primary respondents, Boyle said, because traditionally there's been a belief by researchers that mothers "are more knowledgeable about the health, behaviour and functioning of their children . . . and often they're more available for getting interviews."

Boyle, a professor in McMaster's department of psychiatry and behavioural neuroscience, said his analysis of the three studies found that on average, if a parent treats children differently, it can affect the entire family dynamic.

"It could have a negative impact on the siblings themselves," Boyle speculated. "In other words, it increases inter-sibling hostility or rivalry because Johnny's getting favoured and Jack is not getting favoured.

"If the kids perceive unfairness in the family, a number of things can stem from that . . . Maybe the siblings are competing for attention from parents, and in a competitive environment things get a little nastier. Maybe they're feeling a little more uncertain, and acting out is an expression of that."

While Boyle believes his research is the first to show this global repercussion on the family, he said the effect on average is relatively small. Overall parenting levels and the nature of one-on-one interactions with an individual child have a much stronger impact on behaviour, self-esteem and emotional health.

Still, he said the finding does underscore the importance of taking a balanced approach to child-rearing.

"In some ways, it will tell families what they already know and try to do instinctively, and that's to treat all their kids fairly and equitably. And I think families strive to do that. For most families, that's an important objective and guiding principle."

The study is being published this week by the Washington-based Society for Research in Child Development.