Being The Favorite Child Is Linked With Depression

by Pamela J. Hobart

Many moms will insist that they love all their children equally, but most siblings like to joke that there is a favorite in the family. However, being the favorite isn't necessarily a good thing — new research suggests that favorite children are more likely to suffer from depression as an adult. A study co-led by sociologist Jill Suitor of Purdue University found that children who believed that they were emotionally closer to their mother than other siblings were most likely of the over 700 adults studied to experience depressive symptoms.

The researchers hypothesize that the increased depression risk in favorites is due to the heightened sibling rivalry they face. Though the favorite may get more attention and support from mom, he or she could be facing relatively worse treatment from the other kids in the family, and that could wear a person down. Another possible explanation is that favorite children are called upon more heavily by their aging parents, which is stressful at a time when kids are trying to deal with full-blown lives and families of their own. (The experimental participants in this study had mothers who were 65 to 75 at the time, so the mothers would likely have begun to have changing elderly needs.)

I have another proposal — it could be that moms inadvertently pick the already-struggling or apparently weak kids to be their favorite, as a way of causing themselves to pay more attention to that one. If this is true, that would mean that mom's extra attention doesn't necessarily cause depression. In fact, maybe being mom's favorite is helping the more depression-prone kids do better than they otherwise would have. But since no one will be able (or willing) to accurately tell researchers whether they are the psychologically least functional of their sibling groups, this possibility will be hard to study.

Additionally, the researchers found that adults who thought they were the child in whom their moms were most disappointed also suffered more from depressive symptoms. Though this part of the results is a little less surprising, it does drive the point home that there is a certain valuable middle ground to be had. It's too bad that all parents can't just have medium expectations for their kids, and that all kids can't just mostly fulfill them. Being the best or the worst is just too stressful.

Image: Asia Yakushevich/Fotolia; Giphy