Family Favoritism Can Lead to Substance Abuse

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

In most large families, at some point, brothers and sisters accuse their parents of showing favoritism. Whether it’s the overachieving sister who gets all the attention or the baby brother taking all of mom’s time, the “who’s the family favorite” debate has classically been labeled as harmless family bickering. But it turns out family favoritism might not be so harmless after all.

Believe it or not, a Brigham Young University (BYU) study found that preferential treatment is actually linked to addiction. Published in the Journal of Family Psychology, BYU researchers found an increased incidence of alcohol, cigarette and drug use among the less-favored children.

Disengaged Families

Brigham Young University professor Alex Jensen and his research team analyzed 282 families for this study, each with teenage siblings. The researchers evaluated perceived preferential treatment, especially among families that weren’t very close to one another. Among these so-called “disengaged” families, the teenagers who felt slighted by parents were at a much higher risk of developing an addiction.

Among… “disengaged” families, the teenagers who felt slighted by parents were at a much higher risk of developing an addiction.

It’s also worth noting that the degree of perceived preferential treatment made a difference in the outcome. For example, when looking at the teens who viewed themselves as slightly less favored, the researchers found they were more than twice as likely to use alcohol, cigarettes, and/or drugs.

When researchers turned their attention to the teens who felt their parents showed “dramatic” preferential treatment to another sibling, the results were unexpectedly higher. In fact, the severely less favored children were nearly four times more likely to abuse alcohol, cigarettes, and/or drugs.

The BYU research team also found that, among the teens already experimenting with drugs, their use escalated if and when they perceived that they weren’t the favorite child. Likewise, the teens already smoking and drinking were more likely to begin using drugs.

Perception is Everything

Even in the case where the parents treated them differently, those actual differences weren’t linked to substance use – it was the perception.-BYU Professor Alex Jensen
Simply put, favoritism seems to have the most damaging effects on teenagers who feel scarcely loved and drastically underappreciated. And, as it turns out, perception is likely the trigger that drives a majority of these teenagers to drug and alcohol abuse.

“It’s not just how you treat them differently, but how your kids perceive it,” Jensen said. “Even in the case where the parents treated them differently, those actual differences weren’t linked to substance use – it was the perception.”

Parental Takeaway

In addition to establishing a connection between parental favoritism and drug/alcohol abuse, Jensen points out that the teenagers with actively engaged parents were better able to avoid the pitfalls of addiction.

“Every kid as they get older develops their own interests and starts to have their own identity,” Jensen said. “If you value that and respect that, and as a parent support what they see as their identity, that would help them feel loved.”

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