Favouritism - it's not all in the head of children, a new study shows. A mother showing favouritism to one child can leave lasting effects on her other children, who may also display depressive symptoms in middle-age.
The recent survey of 275 Boston-area families is the first to show that such harmful effects persist long into adulthood.
Prior research has shown that parental favouritism negatively affects mental health and often triggers behavioural problems in children, teens and young adults.
"Perceived favouritism 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 Cornell University gerontologist Karl Pillemer.
"It doesn't matter whether you are the chosen child or not, the perception of unequal treatment has damaging effects for all siblings," Pillemer adds.
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 favouritism can be something of a taboo topic. If counsellors can help older parents and adult children bring some of these issues into the open, it may help prevent family conflict from arising," he says.
The research results were first published in the April 2010 edition of the peer-reviewed Journal of Marriage and Family.