Being mom’s favorite child is not a guarantee that it is best for one’s psychological health, according to new research from Purdue University.
“There is a cost for those who perceive they are the closest emotionally to their mothers, and these children report higher depressive symptoms, as 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,” said Jill Suitor, a professor of sociology.
The findings are published in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, and are based on the first and second phases of the Within-Family Differences Study. Data for the study were collected seven years apart from 725 adult children within 309 families in which mothers were 65-75 when the project began in 2001. The four dimensions of favoritism and disfavoritism are emotional closeness, conflict, pride and disappointment.
“This cost comes from higher sibling tension experienced by adult children who are favored for emotional closeness, 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.
The study is funded by the National Institute on Aging and co-authored with Karl Pillemer, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University.
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, who also is a member of the Center on Aging and the Life Course.
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.
Objectives: The detrimental consequences of parents’ differential treatment on children’s well-being have been documented in earlier stages of the life course; however, little is known about this pattern in midlife. Drawing from theories of equity and social comparison, we tested whether psychological well-being was affected only by adult children’s perceptions that their mothers treated some offspring in the family differently or by their perceptions that they were favored or disfavored. Further, we explored the extent to which theses patterns differed by race.
Method: Multilevel regression modeling was conducted using data collected from 725 adult children nested within 309 later-life families as part of the Within-Family Differences Study-II.
Results: Depressive symptoms were higher when offspring perceived that they had the most emotional closeness to mothers or the greatest conflict with mothers. Depressive symptoms were also higher when respondents identified themselves as being the children in whom the mothers were most disappointed.
Discussion: The findings shed new light on the role of intergenerational relations in adult children’s well-being in midlife by taking into consideration the respondents’ direct reports of their perceptions of their mother’s favoritism and disfavoritism. Further, the findings provide evidence that the association between maternal differentiation and psychological well-being in adulthood is stronger in black than in white families. These patterns suggest that the association between psychological well-being and both favoritism and disfavoritism can be accounted for by processes involving social comparison rather than equity for both black and white adult children in midlife.