Whether mom's golden child or her black sheep, siblings who sense that their mother consistently favors or rejects one child over others are more likely to show depressive symptoms as middle-aged adults - according to a new study by Cornell University gerontologist Karl Pillemer.
The recent survey of 275 Boston-area families, co-directed by Purdue University sociologist Jill Suitor, is the first to show that such harmful effects persist long into adulthood. Prior research has shown that parental favoritism negatively affects mental health and often triggers behavioral problems in children, teens and young adults.
"Perceived favoritism from one's mother still matters to a child's psychological well-being, even if they have been living for years outside the parental home and have started families of their own," says Pillemer, a professor in the Department of Human Development and associate dean in Cornell's College of Human Ecology. "It doesn't matter whether you are the chosen child or not, the perception of unequal treatment has damaging effects for all siblings."
The study, which controlled for family size, race and other factors, drew on interviews with 275 mothers in their 60s and 70s with at least two living adult children. Researchers also surveyed 671 offspring of the women.
The findings could lead to new therapies for practitioners who work with later-life families, Pillemer says.
"We have a powerful norm in our society that parents should treat kids equally, so favoritism can be something of a taboo topic," he says. "If counselors can help older parents and adult children bring some of these issues into the open, it may help prevent family conflict from arising."