Should Parents Treat Siblings Differently?

There is a lot to think about when you add another child to your family and you may find yourself wondering how to interact with each of your children equally. Let’s discuss whether parents should treat siblings differently and what the impact of doing so can be.

Why do some parents treat their siblings differently?

There are quite a few reasons why parents treat their children differently. More often than not they do so based on these things:

Gender

There is a lot of research that shows most parents treat their sons differently to their daughters. We tend to respond to a baby girl cry much faster than a baby boy cry, for example. Some of this is biologically ingrained in us, but a lot of our attitudes towards boys and girls is learned and we pick it up from others throughout our lives.

Age

Older children have different needs than younger children and at times will need to be treated differently. A TV show that an 8 year old watches is probably wholly inappropriate for a 1 year old for example, and that’s before you get started on how much screen time each child should have! The same goes for food, activities and bedtime.

Personal relationship and bond

Now this one is tricky. Some parents find they bond more easily with one of their children over another. Perhaps they share similar interests or have personalities that attract. This can lead to the parent treating one child differently to their siblings and cause issues down the road. Many parents aren’t aware they are doing this and most don’t intend to do it either.

There are other reasons parents treat their children differently, such as a child’s individual health needs and family living arrangements. Every family is unique and their setup will be too. Don’t worry if your children’s needs require that you treat them differently so long as you are aware of that and set clear boundaries. Do check in with yourself (and your children) often as you navigate these complex waters.

Should parents do this?

Well, it’s not as straightforward as you might think. Children have different needs and may need to be treated differently for them to function well. Think about it, a 2 year old will need to go to bed earlier than a 10 year old and not everyone in the family will be invited to every sleepover.  However, it is still important that the overall treatment of siblings and their routine is similar. This means you love, care for and support your children equally, with respect for their different ages and needs of course.

The reality is that there will be times when you cannot treat siblings exactly the same however much you might want to. It’s crucial that parents explain the best they can why one child is getting something different than their sibling when this happens. This way they begin to understand that their sibling is the only one who gets presents on their birthday or they get extra TV time because they are feeling sick, for example. 

How does favouritism affect a child?

There are always children who won’t notice favouritism at all, but for those who do, it can have a negative effect on their relationships with their parents, their siblings and others as well as their own self-esteem as they grow. A child who feels like this might feel jealous of their sibling and potentially act out to get attention. Conversely, other children will lock others out and may become withdrawn.

In the long run, a child who sees their sibling as their parent’s favourite may develop resentment towards their family. Some children suffer with mental health challenges as a result of favouritism and experience negative long term effects on their future outcomes.

Is the younger child usually the favourite?

Yes, studies have shown that the youngest child is usually the favourite, but in an interesting twist it is because the youngest child perceives themselves as the favorite first. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Most families though will never be aware of this and most younger siblings will be unaffected. It is worth checking yourself though to make sure all of your children are getting what they need from you.

Are parents usually stricter with the older sibling?

Parents are testing the water with their oldest child, as they are the first ones to do everything. They are the first ones to go to school, the first ones to go to the playground and so on. Naturally, parents set boundaries based on their first child’s needs and their own parenting style. Then when another child comes along those boundaries are often disrupted. Therefore, parents find themselves letting their younger child do or eat things they would never have let the oldest do at the same age.

Sometimes it’s easier to give in to a younger sibling who wants what their older brother or sister has, and at other times parents have simply relaxed their rules and expectations over time. It can feel unfair though to an older sibling, who had to wait a long time until they could go on the big slide at the park, when they see their younger sibling get to try it much earlier on. This is something to be aware of as you decide on the boundaries in your family.

should parents treat siblings differently

What are the signs of parental favouritism?

Some signs of parental favouritism are:

  • More time spent with one child

A parent might spend more time playing with, talking to or supporting one child over others. Sometimes there is an obvious reason for this, like a new baby who has frequent, immediate needs or a toddler who needs constant supervision. This wouldn’t necessarily constitute a case of favouritism.

  • Unequal rewards and consequences

A parent may give unequal rewards for good behaviour or special treats, and/or uneven consequences for poor behaviour. For example, two siblings compete in a soccer game and do their best but only one child gets their parent’s enthusiastic praise or support. Perhaps both siblings damage the kitchen table with markers but only one gets yelled at and the other gets away with it. Now, if these things happen occasionally it may not be a sign of favouritism, but if there is a pattern of this sort of thing it certainly could be.

  • More easily impressed or disappointed

A parent may be especially proud of one sibling’s achievements over the other. In the same vein they could be more easily disappointed by one child’s mistakes than the other.

  • Neglect or abuse

In severe cases of parental favouritism a child can experience neglect or other forms or abuse. This can include the withdrawal of attention, food, shelter or other basic needs.

What are the long term effects of this on a child?

Parental favouritism can make a child feel unloved and emotionally separate from their family. In some cases children experience mental illness, self-esteem issues and struggle with other relationships in their lives. It can also impact their relationships with their siblings and their parents in the long-term.

Most of us are doing our best to treat our children equally and show them that with our words and actions. Parental favouritism between siblings is easily missed however and it’s well worth monitoring our own behaviour.

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