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Emotional child abuse has to be banned – the science backs up our instincts

Dr Oliver James

The government is right: children need love as much as they do vitamins – and a lack of it often leads to adult psychosis.

We cannot be blamed for feeling nervous when this government talks of criminalising lack of parental love. There are uber-Thatcherites in its ranks who talk up the ‘big society’ but blame the individual. A wheeze for dumping their failure to support parents back on them would be no surprise.

However, in proposing to criminalise emotional abuse and neglect crimes, I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. Many estimable campaigning groups, such as Action for Children, have advocated such legislation.

The case for it comes from the nature as well as nurture side of the child development debate. In an astonishing admission in the Guardian last month, Robert Plomin, the country’s leading genetic psychologist, admitted of the Human Genome Project’s quest for genes for psychological traits of all kinds: “I’ve been looking for these genes for 15 years and I don’t have any.”

On the other side of the equation, the evidence for the role of maltreatment in causing emotional distress in general, and emotional abuse and neglect in particular, has become overwhelming. This applies as much to the extreme disturbance of psychosis (mostly schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) as to more common problems such as depression and anxiety.

A definitive analysis of the 41 best studies into the impact of childhood adversity on the risk of psychosis (mostly schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) was published in 2012. It broke down the role of different kinds of maltreatment. Emotional abuse meant exposure to behaviour such as harshness and name-calling from parents. Emotional neglect meant lack of love and responsiveness. Overall, in order of impact, emotional abuse increased the risk of psychosis the most (by 3.4 times, physical abuse and emotional neglect did so by 2.9, sexual abuse and bullying by peers by 2.4).

That emotional abuse is more damaging than sexual and physical abuse may seem surprising, although they tend to go together. One study found that the emotionally abused were 12 times more likely to be schizophrenic than the general population (compared with six times for the physically abused and twice as likely for the sexually abused). Another study followed adolescents for 15 years and found that over a third became schizophrenic if both parents were hostile, critical and intrusive, compared with none where only one parent was or neither were. In his definitive book, Models of Madness, John Read, a clinical psychologist at Liverpool University, shows that in the 10 studies testing the matter, the more extreme the childhood adversity, the greater the risk of adult psychosis. The results are similar for the number of adversities. In one large study, those subjected to five or more adversities were 193 times more likely to suffer psychosis than those with none.

Similar findings come from studies of less extreme emotional distress. In the definitive one, which followed 180 children from infancy to the age of 18, 90% of those who suffered early maltreatment qualified for a mental illness. Emotional neglect under the age of two was a critical predictor.

It is in light of this evidence that the government’s plans must be understood: the crucial role of early nurture seems to be accepted in a cross-party consensus.

The null hypothesis of the Human Genome Project will almost certainly have to be accepted: that genes play almost no role in explaining why one sibling is different from another. In the meantime, we need not fear Orwellian intrusion on parents by social workers measuring how much we love our children.

If there were laws against hitting children, as there should be, it would not result in many, or even any, convictions. It will be the same with this law. What is important is for the authorities to signal clearly that, as John Bowlby pointed out 60 years ago, love is as vital as vitamins for a child to flourish.

The role of environment in child development is crucial

Dr Oliver James

That children are different at birth is well-proven but how babies subsequently develop depends on the way the primary carer (nearly always the mother) reacts to these differences. Postnatal differences are hardly ever due to genes, they result from exigencies of the pregnancy and birth.

The most definitive proof of the importance of early mothering compared with neonatal personality was a study by Dymphna van den Boom, a Dutch researcher. She embarked on her research because, while working as a teacher of troubled children, she had become convinced that innate difficultness of babies was a major cause of later problems.

To test the idea, she selected 100 infants whose postnatal personalities should have placed them at very high risk of being emotionally insecure. They had been measured as highly irritable immediately after birth, easily upset and annoyed, harder to cope with than smiley, placid babies. If the irritability was a genetic trait it should translate into insecurity a year later regardless of the kind of care received.

When the babies were aged six to nine months, 50 of the mothers received counselling sessions to increase their responsiveness and sensitivity to their difficult charges. Prior to the help, these mothers tended to have become discouraged by their baby’s lack of good cheer, ignoring them. Custom-building her help to the particular problems, Van den Boom taught techniques for soothing the baby, encouraged play and helped the mother to connect.

Meanwhile, the other 50 mothers and their irritable babies had received no extra help. When the level of emotional security of the two groups were tested at one year old, the contrast in the outcomes was remarkable. In the group who had had no help, 72% of the children were insecure whereas in the assisted group, only 32% were. The only difference was the counselling sessions, so the implication was that even the most difficult babies can be turned around by their mothers.

More recent studies have demonstrated the same basic point. Overall, children born with low birth weights are at greater risk of inattention and hyperactivity at school age but this is not found if the mother is warm and supportive in early life. Children whose mothers drank a lot during pregnancy are generally at greater risk of a low IQ – but not if the mother is emotionally sensitive and mentally stimulating.

Most recently, a study of more than 1,700 maltreated children showed the crucial role of environment. Measured soon after birth, 85% of these children were neurologically impaired and at high risk of behaviour problems and language deficits. Followed up at 18 months and three years, it turned out that the more their environment improved, the greater the likelihood of them having overcome their initial impairment.

In particular, for at least a decade the myth has been doing the rounds that babies’ temperaments determine the care they receive, not vice versa. This study was able to show quite clearly that it was how the environment reacted to the babies that was crucial in determining outcome. Similarly the contention has been disproved that peers and friends have a greater impact on how we turn out than parents.

The message that early care trumps genes in most cases is not always popular. Mothers already have a huge amount of pressure on them, especially first-timers. But it’s surely much better to be acquainted with the truth than to find yourself 20 years too late saying, “I wish someone had warned me about the importance of early care.”

Van den Boom study: Van den Boom, D, 1994, Child Development, vol 65, pp1457-77. Study of 1,700 maltreated children: Jaffee, SR, 2007, Development and Psychopathology, vol 19, pp631-47.

 

Supportive nurturing is good for our developing brains

Dr Oliver James

While there is overwhelming evidence that if children are maltreated in the early years it affects their brains adversely, the good news is that the reverse is also true: supportive, loving nurture does cause desirable brain chemistry. In particular, as an important new book, The Compassionate Mind, by the psychologist Paul Gilbert, explains, levels of the neuropeptide oxytocin are critically affected for the better.

Its main effect is on our relationship with other people. While it is not as extreme as ecstasy – which causes strangers to wrap themselves around each other – it greatly increases feelings of love and affiliation. Loved-up on oxytocin, natural opioids are released, creating a sense of relaxation, a reduction in the tendency to interpret others as threatening and a greater confidence that they will be nice to know.

As well as boosting opioid secretion, oxytocin moderates that of the fight-flight stress hormone cortisol. People high in oxytocin tend to have well-balanced cortisol levels, although sometimes both chemicals may be high if they are fighting it out for what is most needed – attack or relax? That oxytocin is in favour of the latter is shown by the fact that levels of it are higher after massages and after sex. Indeed, supplying it to men who are having trouble getting orgasms helps them to finish the job.

When couples are physically together, oxytocin levels are higher than those of single people in each other’s presence. If singles are given a stressful task, they have higher levels when given the support of their best friend. For the unsupported, only cortisol levels rise.

Since people with a secure pattern of attachment are much more likely to have had loving, reliable and supportive parents, this suggests parenting is important in establishing basic levels.

It starts in pregnancy. Unstressed mothers who report positive feelings about the pregnancy and foetus before the birth have higher oxytocin levels. These are probably passed to the baby through the placenta. Postnatally, mothers with high prenatal levels tune into and bond better with their infants.

If they breastfeed, mothers have more oxytocin. If stressed half an hour after a feed, they secrete less cortisol, being less easily thrown into a flap.

Animal studies suggest that oxytocin is important for bonding and creating offspring with high levels. When maternal voles are given a drug that reduces their oxytocin level, they do less licking, grooming and retrieval of wandering pups. In other studies, vole mothers who have previously been observed as not very maternal produced offspring with low oxytocin levels.

Such early neglect in humans has also been shown to produce adults with lower levels of oxytocin and with a greater propensity to emotional distress. Adults who have had good quality early relationships with parents have higher levels and are also less likely to be psychologically distressed.

We know all about the cycle of emotional deprivation, and its physical effects on the brain’s electrochemistry are becoming better known by the year – abnormal cortisol levels, probably similar depletion of dopamine and serotonin, quite apart from the decreased brain growth that is the result of severe maltreatment.

That loving childhood care establishes a positive electrochemical baseline from which to confront life’s challenges is hardly surprising. But it is hugely important that the hard evidence is there, because it provides strong encouragement to parents who go all the way to meet a child’s needs when tiny – it really does make all the difference between a happy-chappy and a misery-guts, and the love cascades on down the generations.

Further reading: The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert (Constable).

 

A legacy of neglect is easily passed down from parent to child

Dr Oliver James

Most parents are not surprised to learn that extreme and rare maltreatment, such as sexual abuse, profoundly affects a child’s brain. But much more common, less severe kinds of adversity also have physical effects on neurology.

While what applies to animals by no means always applies to humans, in this area the findings do seem significant. For instance, the kind of early care a monkey receives precisely predicts its brain chemistry and the kind of parent it will become.

Patterns of mothering are passed down from monkey mother to daughter through the specific amount of care given and received. When the daughter of a monkey becomes a mother herself, the amount of attention she had from her mother precisely predicts how much she bestows on her own offspring. Above all, levels of the fight-flight hormone cortisol cascade down the generations (abnormal levels accompanying unresponsive care), and this also applies to humans.

When left in nurseries for long days, toddlers may not appear stressed. But their cortisol levels rise during the day, going extra high during the afternoon, whereas the cortisol levels of children at home are normally dropping at that time. The issue is less one of whether the carer is a biological parent, as of whether they are a familiar, responsive person providing individual attention. When small children are left with highly responsive childminders who have only one or two others to care for, their cortisol is normal.

It is just as problematic for small children if their parents are physically with them, but emotionally absent. If parents are alcoholic, when drunk they are not tuned into the child, being prone to elevated excitation, irritability or semi-consciousness. Children of such parents also have high cortisol levels. The same is true if parents are depressed. If a mother is despairing, she does not have the capacity to focus on the child. Such neglect in the earliest years of the child creates vulnerability to high cortisol when stressed in later life.

As with monkeys, this passes down the generations. In large studies, children whose mothers were stressed or depressed when the child was five were most likely to have high cortisol levels if their mother’s mother had also suffered these problems when she was young.

The earlier and more severe the maltreatment, the more profound its effect. In a study of 800 children aged nine, those who had suffered severe maltreatment before the age of three were more disturbed than those who had suffered it aged three to five (but had not suffered it aged nought to three). The children in the three-to-five age group in turn were more disturbed than those who had only suffered maltreatment aged five to nine. The form of maltreatment also predicted the type of later disturbance: physically neglected children had different outcomes from those physically abused. Abnormal cortisol levels accompanied maltreatment.

Given the widespread nature of maternal depression and inadequate substitute care for toddlers, it is hardly surprising that many children and adults have abnormal cortisol levels, contributing to a wide variety of emotional problems, including ADHD, anxiety and depression. The good news is that this is reversible, like a thermostat that can be altered, rather than hardwired by genes. Parents of small children can adjust the care they provide. People who suffered when small can rebalance their cortisol levels through therapy.

Cortisol: Gunnar, MR et al, 2002, Psychoneuroendocrinology, 27, 199-220. Study 800 children: Manly, JT et al, 2001, Development and Psychopathology, 13, 759-82. Gerhardt, S, 2004, Why Love Matters, Routledge.

 

Why do mothers in bad relationships feel even worse after the break-up?

Dr Oliver James

Suppose you’re a mother with small children who is sick of her partner. Would you feel better if you left? Probably not, says the scientific evidence. Rather surprisingly, the most definitive recent study on the subject reveals that, in fact, you are most likely to feel a good deal worse. A sample of more than 8,000 mothers with small children and living with a partner was studied. Whether they were depressed, and the quality of the relationship with their partner, were measured. Depression levels were reassessed again 12 months later, by which time 215 mothers had separated or divorced.

The startlingly bad news was that more than half (56.1%) of the mothers who had broken up with their partners were liable to be more depressed afterwards than when first interviewed.

Worst hit after the break-up were mothers who had been in relationships where conflict was low when originally measured. This may be because the break-up came out of the blue, perhaps the result of an affair. But, curiously, if the relationship you were leaving was riddled with conflict, you were still liable to be more depressed after splitting up.

This proves that a significant number of mothers in a lousy relationship feel even lousier without it. It is reminiscent of the joke with which Woody Allen ended his film Annie Hall, along the lines of: A wife goes to her psychiatrist and says “My husband thinks he’s a chicken.” The shrink says: “So why do you stay with him?” She replies: “I need the eggs.” We seem to need each other’s foibles, including the bad bits.

But there was some good news as well: 21% of the mothers who had broken-up did feel significantly less depressed afterwards. Presumably these were the ones whose partner was a lost cause, or just the wrong man for them.

The key question for a mother contemplating a break-up is: What distinguishes the more depressed afterwards from who will be less so?

At first sight, it might seem best to be simply a cohabitee. Such mothers did not have any increase in depression after leaving, perhaps less disappointed by a break-up. Whether in a relationship or not, they may have a more “easy come, easy go” attitude to commitment. Cohabitees were eight times more likely to have split up over the 12 months.

Then again, the cohabitees had started off much more likely in the first place to be depressed than first-time married mothers. When you dig deeper, the key point about “should I stay or should I go” is the extent to which your partner is really the cause of your unhappiness: how sure are you that you would feel better alone, or indeed, with someone else?

Many studies show that people who break-up were already prone to depression and anxiety in their teens, long before they met their reproductive partner. There is always a danger of blaming one’s own pathology on one’s partner. While no one doubts that there is such a thing as vile, impossibly difficult partners and that incompatibility can occur, the evidence suggests neither are as common as you might think.

Modern marital therapy has a tendency to encourage us to see problems as “in” the relationship when often they are actually “in” each of the individuals, each requiring separate treatment. While marital therapy can help to fine tune a relationship, I would estimate that in the vast majority of unhappy couples the first port of call should be individual help, often for both partners. The truth is that nearly all relationships are pretty damn tricky and yet, however weird, that most of us do “need the eggs”.

Study of 8286 mothers: O’Connor, T, 2005, Psychological Medicine, vol 35, pp 715-24.

 

All you need is love bombing

Dr Oliver James

Psychologist Oliver James on how his new technique can transform children with common behaviour problems

In March 2010 I received an email from Miranda. She wrote that her son Tim, nine, “seems to not like himself and has no focus. He says he hates himself and that he’s rubbish at everything”. A bright boy, Tim refused to do his homework and was prone to temper tantrums.

The solution I proposed was love bombing, a method I developed to reset the emotional thermostats of children aged three to puberty. It entails spending a period of time alone with your child, offering them unlimited love and control. It works for a wide variety of common problems, severe or mild; from defiant – even violent – aggression to shyness, sleeping problems or underperformance at school.

This is not the same as “quality time” – just hanging out with your child. When you love bomb, you create a special emotional zone wholly different from normal life, with new rules. More than 100 families have tried it, nearly all with positive results.

So, how exactly does it work? First, you explain to your child that, sometime soon, the two of you are going to spend time together, one to one, and have a lot of fun. Your child is going to decide what they want and when they want it, within reason. You give the message that this is going to be a Big Event: It’s Coming Soon … How Exciting! The child then draws up a list of things to do. It doesn’t matter if it includes lots of SpongeBob SquarePants: the key is that your child has chosen it.

Throughout the experience, you are trying, as much as possible, to give them the feeling of “whatever I want, I get” – of being in control and of being gratified, as well as bombed with love.

You may be thinking: Is he mad? My child is a tyrant – rewarding him like that is just going to make it even worse! This is understandable. Love bombing seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which often recommends more control, not less, when a child is not complying, and stricter, firmer reactions to undesirable behaviour.

But the love bomb zone is separate from ordinary life. Outside the zone, you continue to set boundaries, consistently and firmly. In fact, the love bombing experience will feed back in a benign way, greatly reducing the time you spend imposing limits, nagging and nattering – the “Don’t do that”, “I’ve told you before, put that down”, “Leave your sister alone” into which all parents get sucked sometimes. Almost any child – even happy ones – will benefit.

A key practical decision at the outset is the length of time to spend in the zone and the frequency. At one extreme, you can take your child away from home for a couple of nights at a hotel, bed & breakfast etc.

Alternatively, as many parents have done, the rest of your family can spend the weekend with relatives or friends, leaving you at home with your child. There is no need to spend money. Many parents have done a day away or just bursts of a few hours.

In the case of Miranda and her depressed son Tim, as a dual-income family, they could afford two nights away at an inexpensive hotel. They settled in on the Friday night and set off into town on the Saturday. Much of the time was spent just wandering around, with a certain amount of shopping and a visit to an aquarium.

Miranda recalled that this day “made Tim feel very special. It worked. And when it came to spending money, Tim was reasonable about absolutely everything, much to my surprise.”

Children who feel loved are likely to be less consumption-obsessed.

After a peaceful Saturday night at the hotel with a takeaway and the television, Miranda and Tim pottered around again on the Sunday and visited a zoo on the way home.

As well as Tim feeling in control during this time, there was much affection expressed. Miranda recalls: “Tim spent a great deal of time cuddling up to me and telling me how much he loved me (always reciprocated). It was interesting for me not to be in charge. I do tend to lead. Here, it really was mostly Tim’s decision what we did next, what we ate and what we watched on TV.”

In the guidelines I offer, I suggest getting the child to give the experience a name before doing it, like Special Time or Mummy Time or Daddy Time. Often it helps to have a material object to remind them of the experience, like a stone from a beach or a teddy bear. Using this and the name to help as prompts, on returning, parents are asked to try to carve out half an hour an evening when they can briefly re-enter the love bomb zone together, even if only to watch TV.

The impact of Tim’s love bombing was immediate and dramatic. Five weeks later, Miranda wrote to me: “Overall he is happier. He still has tantrums, but since the weekend away I haven’t heard him say that he hates himself once.”

Eighteen months later, she reported: “It is getting better, largely due to the love bombing and subsequent changes in our relationship.”

I have had similar reports of sustained success – followed up one to two years after the love bombing – from parents helping children with violent aggression, myriad anxiety problems, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), sleeplessness, perfectionism and even autism.

In many cases, I suspect that the experience stabilises levels of the fight-flight hormone cortisol. If too high, the child can be manic or aggressive or anxious. If too low – blunted – the child may be listless or surly.

Even a brief experience of love and control seems to correct that. Recent evidence suggests that children are far more plastic than was once thought and that the way they are is not fixed, for the vast majority of problems.

The love bombing zone need not be a whole weekend. For instance, Sam, three, seemed a lot more sensitive than his younger brother, easily overwhelmed by simple situations. Sometimes he would melt down in toddler-like rages. He got very jumpy when separated from his mother, Emma. She said: “In the house, he wants to know where I am all the time. “If Emma was upstairs and he was downstairs he would scream asking her whereabouts.

For practical reasons, she planned two consecutive Saturdays away from home with him, rather than a night. Sam named the first Pirate Day because they went to a funfair. He adored feeling in control and the expressions of love. As recommended by my protocol of what to do, she told him that she loved him repeatedly. Once into the habit, she continued. Since that day they both have found it easier to express love frequently . She believes they have “much, much better communication” and says: “It reminded us of the good times that we can have together, setting us back on that track. It was a truly lovely day.”

Often it is not just the child’s thermostat that is corrected, it is also the parent’s in relation to the child. After love bombing, many report that it has been the first time for months, or years, they have remembered how much they love their child.

Emma and Sam’s second day was based at home and included a complete meltdown by him. It is extremely common during love bombing for the child to test out if the parent is for real – really loves them or will still love them if they are horrible. Emma rode it out and they emerged much closer.

Afterwards, she reported: “He has not had any unreachable tantrums since that one on the last love bombing day, four weeks ago.” What is more, Sam’s fear of not knowing where his mother is in the house has gone.

However you do love bombing, there is nothing to lose. What’s not to like about spending time having fun with your child? If it transforms them and your relationship, so much the better – the worst that can happen is you return from the zone having had a good time.

Love Bombing: Reset Your Child’s Emotional Thermostat is published by Karnac Books

 

The problem of self-handicapping becomes a vicious circle

Dr Oliver James

Your child puts off revising, stays up all night to prepare for the exam and gets a much lower grade. You have a tendency to get blind drunk the night before crucial work meetings – with lamentable consequences. Your daughter finally gets a longed-for date only to get lost on the way to the cinema – not the first time.

These are illustrations of a common problem that plagues families across the generations – self-handicapping: when a challenge arises, the person engages in a self-defeating action. It can apply to almost any domain, from domestic tasks to homework and sport. The tactic can be anything from procrastination to self-induced injury and rudeness.

Extensive research suggests that the handicapper creates an excuse for themselves when threatened with evaluation out of a fear of feeling like a failure, to protect their self-esteem. It can work two ways. If the person does badly, they blame it on the booze, the lack of exam preparation, the unfortunate injury. If the person does well, they say they would have done even better without the handicap. In the short-term, it allows them to sustain their belief that they had the capacity needed, whatever the outcome. They become addicted to a disastrous tendency to want to keep their true capability under wraps, untested by unhandicapped conditions.

But in the long-term it leads to decreased performance. Self-handicapping pupils do worse than non-handicappers in class and exams. They perform below the standard that their IQ scores would predict. And adults do worse in their careers than their true potential.

Studies of handicappers show they tend to believe their abilities in the fields where they handicap are fixed, usually by genes. The threat of a failure signals a potential lack of ability; a devastating message because they cannot remedy the deficit. Handicapping deflects the potentially negative feedback. But people who feel their capacities are not fixed can risk evaluation, confident that increased effort and better preparation will improve performance.

Allied to this, handicappers have been shown to have a history of not feeling confident that it was their volition that resulted in success in the field where they handicap. For example, a child who has been heavily pressurised or controlled by a parent in a skill is liable not to really feel it that was them who achieved the outcome. This means they feel safer handicapping when threatened by evaluation.

While parents or employers do give the handicapper the benefit of the doubt, it’s a short-term gain. For they also offer fiercer, more condemnatory feedback to handicappers – a vicious circle in which the more the person feels insecure and hides behind handicapping, the worse they do, and the more their abilities are criticised.

So, beware of seeing capacities as genetically inherited – it makes for fearfulness that your efforts can make no difference to outcomes. On top of this, as a parent, there is persuasive evidence that how you nurture skills affects whether offspring handicap.

Children of “authoritative” parents do so less – they are warm but also firm and monitor what is happening. Neglectful parents, who just leave the children to get on with it (often assuming it’s in the genes as to how things turn out) and display little warmth, are more liable to have children who are scared to be evaluated, and handicap in defence. Alternatively, permissive parents may be warm but they do not back this up with sufficient attention and monitoring to enable the child to succeed. They may be loving and tell the child it has high abilities, but without the necessary scaffolding of support, it leaves the child confused as to its real abilities.

Parenting, children’s academic performance and handicapping: Boon, HJ, 2007, Australian Psychologist, 42, 212–225.

 

Parents treat their children differently, but they often can’t see it

Dr Oliver James

It now seems very likely that the Human Genome Project is proving that only 5%-10% of the difference between your offspring is caused by genes for the vast majority of traits. If so, differences in the way that you care for them may largely explain their individuality.

Although shockingly little research has been devoted to differential care (because genes were largely assumed to explain sibling difference), it is established that two-thirds of children claim that their parents show some form of preferential treatment. Overall, younger children get more parental warmth and involvement.

A study of five and seven-year-old siblings, and their parents, in 172 families reveals some of the underlying causes of differential treatment. Whereas most of the children claimed they were treated differently by both parents, only a small proportion of either fathers or mothers thought they did. If a child claimed difference, the parent very rarely also reported it. That strongly suggests that parents (understandably) like to think they are fair but it is likely the children know better.

There were big differences between mothers and fathers. Maternal levels of emotional “malaise” (measured as prolonged feelings of sadness, despair, loss of appetite, enjoyment, lethargy and thoughts about suicide) predicted differential treatment. The same was true of emotional anger. Yet neither of these predicted it in fathers.

This may not be surprising. In most families, mothers continue to be more involved in childrearing (time spent present with children, as well as actively engaging with them) than are fathers. Mothers shoulder more of the responsibility for childcare tasks (eg taking children to and from school, keeping dentist appointments). Sheer quantity of involvement alone would make it likely that any tendency to treat their children more differently would come out. Combine that with malaise or anger and it’s easy to see how differential treatment would be greater.

There was also more in chaotic households (noisy, untidy ones with a lack of routine). Under stress, any differential tendencies may be harder to control and are exacerbated.

Overall, single mothers were no more likely to differentiate than ones in couples. However, if they had high levels of anger, they were much more likely to, perhaps for lack of support from a partner.

When all the measured factors were taken into account, they explained 17% of the differential patterns. But the study did not examine the role of parents’ personal histories. It is likely to be critical. Families are like dramas, and the parents’ own childhoods make a very significant contribution to the writing of their scripts. Our reactions to the gender of our children, for example, is hugely influenced by what happened in our original family.

There is abundant evidence that people who feel they were unfavoured as children are at greater risk of problems such as depression and underachievement. It’s important, therefore, for us to listen to our children if they complain about it. While moaning about “unfairness” is a common tactic, it should not be dismissed too casually.

Ask yourself if there are not ways in which your own childhood has affected your reaction to this child. The positive attributions are not usually the problem, though bigging up one child’s academic success at the expense of the other’s is not helpful. Your conviction that your son can be “a malicious little bastard, sometimes” or that your daughter “is a right little madam”, may be true. But part of the reason they are like that could be to do with what you, or a sibling, or a parent, were like back in your childhood. Just making the attribution can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Study of differential treatment: Atzaba-Poria, N and Pike, A, 2008, Child Development, 79, 217–232.