When Being Number One Is Bad News

Children who feel that they're a disappointment to mom often suffer lifelong depression, anxiety, and other mental and physical health problems. But oddly, children who are the apple of mom's eye suffer the same problems.

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It’s no secret that guilt plays havoc with our health. People who feel guilty for extended periods of time are, on average, more depressed, more anxious, more stressed, and have a weaker immune system than those who go through life without the guilt. They’re also more likely to engage in risky, destructive behavior, including self-medicating with drugs and/or alcohol. One of the most powerful producers of guilty feelings is the perception of having disappointed someone. And close to the top of the list of people we might have disappointed are our parents. Given all that, it would be natural to assume that being a parent’s favorite would produce all sorts of wonderful benefits. But you’d be wrong. In fact, according to a new study, being mom’s favorite may be just as hard on your psychological well-being as being the one who never manages to live up to her expectations or the one who had the most argumentative relationship with her. “There is a cost for those who perceive they are the closest emotionally to their mothers,” wrote Jill Suitor, one of the coauthors of the study and a professor of sociology at Purdue University, “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.” Sound a little counterintuitive, I know, but here’s how it works. There are actually a number of things going on at the same time. First, there’s the fact that although most mothers would never admit it, they actually do have a favorite child–and kids are quite adept at figuring out where they stand in mom’s eyes relative to their siblings. Favored children often get hassled, teased, made fun of, and excluded by their less-loved siblings. Being on the receiving end of that kind of treatment is depressing. Worse yet, “siblings continued to compare themselves to each other well into middle age,” according to Suitor and her team. And those feelings of depression and unhappiness continue just as long. Second, there’s the pressure a favorite child feels to take care of Mom as she ages. Because of that pressure and the associated stress, being a caregiver to an aging parent is a known predictor of a variety of negative health effects, including anxiety, depression, premature aging, exhaustion, and an increased mortality rate from all causes. Interestingly, this study, which was published in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, found that the effects of being the favorite (or least favored) child were the same, regardless of whether the child was male or female. And in an effort to correct a clear case of gender bias, the same research team is investigating the effects on children of being favored by (or being a disappointment to) Dad.