A favored child's self-esteem may actually suffer if the child doesn't think she deserves preferential parental treatment, says a study in the September issue of Family Psychology.
The study found that when siblings judge preferential treatment to be fair, each child is less likely to have such problems as depression and anxiety and they're more likely to have higher feelings of self-worth.
The study examined several aspects of favored treatment from parents, including being less strict with, or showing more interest or enjoyment in, one child over another. It included interviews with 135 children, about 12 years old, and their older siblings, about 15 years old.
The children were asked to rate the degree to which their parents gave preferential or equal treatment to themselves and their siblings. The children rated whether instances of preferential treatment were fair or unfair. They also filled out a self-worth questionnaire.
The children agreed that younger siblings are more likely to get more affection from their mothers and be dealt with less strictly by mothers and fathers.
The children judged 78 percent of the instances of preferential treatment to be fair. They didn't simply consider preferential treatment in their favor as fair and preferential treatment for siblings as unfair, the study notes.
"The key idea is that -- contrary to the common assumption that children and adolescents suffer when they receive poorer treatment from a parent than a sibling and thrive when they receive preferred treatment -- what's really important is whether children believe the parental treatment is fair or not," says study investigator Laurie Kramer, a professor in the department of human and community development at the University of Illinois.
"Children receiving better treatment than a sibling may have difficulties if they don't believe they are entitled to it," Kramer says.
Parents need to seriously consider how their children view the legitimacy of preferential treatment and need to make their reasoning clear to their children, Kramer says.
For more about sibling interaction, go to this North Dakota State University site about sibling rivalry.