When parents treat their children differently, siblings and parents often have very different ideas about what's happening and why, says a University of Illinois study. And there can be as many points of view as there are family members.
"You'd think it would be clear when a child is receiving more positive or negative attention, and why that might be happening, but families don't seem to talk much about these differences unless someone complains," said Laurie Kramer, a U of I professor of applied family studies.
The study, conducted with Amanda K. Kowal and Jennifer L. Krull of the University of Missouri, included 74 two-parent, middle-class families with one child between the ages of 11 and 13 and a teen sibling who was two to four years older. Parents and siblings were interviewed individually about family interaction.
Even when children reported that they and their siblings were treated differently, they often didn't agree about exactly how or why they were being treated differently, Kramer said. One thing, however, was clear: siblings got along better if they had a shared understanding of why parents treated them differently and believed the treatment was fair.
"That means it's important for families to talk about these issues, and for mothers and fathers to really listen to what their kids are telling them about how their actions are affecting them," said Kramer.
An earlier study by the researchers showed that siblings understand when differences in treatment occur if there's a good reason for it. "For example, if a child is having trouble in school, parents may spend extra time with that child helping with homework and encouraging him. A brother or sister can usually understand that even if it means that they get less parental attention," Kramer said.
Parents can often squelch feelings of disadvantaged treatment by simply explaining the motivation behind their actions, she said. "Say, for example, 'I bought Joe a car when he was 17 because he was working after school and needed transportation. I didn't get one for you at this point because you're working downtown and don't even have a place to park a car."
"If that goes unsaid, the child who doesn't get a car at 17 may make assumptions that just aren't valid. Many families have limited financial resources or other good reasons for making such decisions. It's usually not 'Mom likes you best,'" Kramer said.
Kramer said that differential treatment performed by mothers may have a greater impact on teens' sibling relationships than fathers' differential treatment. "Children tend to closely monitor the ways in which mothers treat them and their siblings differently, and when they feel they have been unfairly treated, they may react with greater dissatisfaction than when fathers treat kids differently," she said.
The study appeared in a recent issue of Social Development. Funding was provided by the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.