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When Mom Loves You Best, No One Wins

Update Date: Feb 12, 2013 01:51 PM EST

Even though parents know they should not, in many families, parents have a favorite child. Called "differential parenting", the dynamic is marked by parents generally interacting positively toward one child and negatively toward another. A new study recently conducted by researchers from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, McMaster University in Canada, the University of Rochester in the United States and the University of Toronto in Canada sought to discover what happened when parents had favorite children. They found that the dynamic negatively affected all of the children, not just the targeted one.

According to TIME magazine, the study examined nearly 400 Canadian families with no more than four children. The mothers in each family were asked about each child's positive and negative behaviors. The researchers also monitored the family interactions at their home. When the youngest child was at least 18 months old, researchers recorded the level of aggression, attention and emotional problems that the children had, as well as their interactions with parents and siblings.

The researchers were nonplussed to find that, in families where differential parenting occurred, all siblings exhibited increased emotion and attention problems.

Researchers also set out to discover why differential parenting occurred, since parents rarely set out to treat their children differently. They found that mothers whose family backgrounds had been rocky were more inclined to treat their children differently, while privileged mothers were more likely to treat their children equally. Mothers who had a great deal of external stress, like single parenthood or a struggle with depression, were also more likely to treat their children differently. In fact, the more external factors that a mother faced, the more likely that she was to treat her children differently.

Researchers say that stressed out mothers are less likely to have patience with children who already have problems. However, that can cause all children, including those viewed favorably, to act out negatively if they view this treatment to be unfair. However, they said that communication could go a long way toward mitigating this dynamic, even from parent to child. If parents explain why they treat some of their children differently, it helps to clear up any misunderstanding.

The study was published in the journal Child Development.

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