July 19, 2018
Are you “best friends” with your mom? Surprisingly, being mom’s favorite child may not be good for your mental health, according to research findings from Purdue University. It turns out that, in a family in which mom plays favorites, the kids who are shafted—the “black sheep”—are not the only ones who are at risk for problems like depression. The favorite, or “golden,” child feels the strain, too.
Data for the study were collected seven years apart from 725 adult children within 309 families in which mothers were between the ages of 65 and 75 when the project began in 2001.
Of course, the word, “favorite,” comes with all kinds of connotations. But 90% of the mothers who participated in the study were able to identify one child who rose to the top of the heap in various contexts, according to a report by Slate. They knew which child they felt closer to; which child they especially liked to confide in; and which they would want around in a crisis. And that child also was aware of his or her status
“There is a cost for those who perceive they are the closest emotionally to their mothers, and these children report higher depressive symptoms [than do] those who experience the greatest conflict with their mothers—or who believe they are the children in whom their mothers are the most disappointed,” says Jill Suitor, a professor of Sociology.
But both are affected by the perceptions within the family. Why does the golden child feel the pain? “This [emotional] cost comes from higher sibling tension experienced by adult children who are favored…, or the greater feelings of responsibility for the emotional care of their older mothers,” said Megan Gilligan, an assistant professor in Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State University and a former Purdue graduate student. She is a collaborator on the project
What’s more, they feel the resentment from their sibling(s), who did not live up to whatever expectations they realize their mother must have had—and who perceive that the golden child always gets the positive attention
The findings are based on the first and second phases of the Within-Family Differences Study—a research initiative sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The study was conducted in cooperation with Dr. Karl Pilleme, a professor of Gerontology in Medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College.
The researchers also compared the patterns by race because much research shows there is greater closeness in black later-life families. In this study, approximately one-quarter of the families were black.
“What we found suggests that the black offspring were particularly distressed when they, as opposed to their siblings, were the children in whom mothers were most disappointed,” said Suitor. The research team also is looking at similar questions related to fathers and predicting favoritism in mother-adult child favoritism. Siyun Peng and Jong Hyun Jung, graduate students in Purdue’s Department of Sociology, also participated on this research team.
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