PROVO, Utah — While parental favoritism seems to have little effect on an older sibling, it can damage the younger in a pair, a new study finds.

Researchers at Brigham Young University examined data from a longitudinal study that included more than 300 families, each of which had two children.

Mother with two children
A new study finds that younger siblings tend to be more emotionally impacted by whether or not they believe they’re the “favorite” in the family.

Both parents and their children were asked to assess the quality of their relationship with one another, which gave researchers the ability to look at this unique familial relationship from different angles.

In general, the later-born child was more likely to connect with either of their parents if they felt as if they were prioritized, and less likely to feel a tight bond if they felt disfavored, the researchers found.

Meanwhile, favoritism had little to no bearing on an older sibling’s relationship with their parents.

“It’s not that first-borns don’t ever think about their siblings and themselves in reference to them,” says Alex Jensen, the study’s lead author, in a news release. “It’s just not as active of a part of their daily life. My guess is it’s probably rarer that parents will say to an older sibling, ‘Why can’t you be more like your younger sibling?’ It’s more likely to happen the other way around.”

This disparity may simply come down to the pressure often placed on younger siblings to behave like their older brother or sister — an expectation that rarely goes both ways.

As for solutions to this seemingly intractable problem, treating one’s children equally is not necessarily one of them.

“When parents are more loving and they’re more supportive and consistent with all of the kids, the favoritism tends to not matter as much,” Jensen explains. “Some parents feel like ‘I need to treat them the same.’ What I would say is ‘No, you need to treat them fairly, but not equally.’ If you focus on it being okay to treat them differently because they’re different people and have different needs, that’s OK.”

Further research could look into whether the youngest offspring in larger families (i.e., those with three or more children) also experience similar outcomes from perceived favoritism.

“If you had to ask me, ‘Do we see the same thing with the second born and third born?’ I think probably so,” Jensen hypothesizes. “The youngest kid looks up to everybody, the next youngest kid looks up to everyone older than them, and it just kind of goes up the line.”

Jensen et al. published their findings last month in the Journal of Adolescence.

About Daniel Steingold

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