Parents’ Differential Treatment and Adolescents’ Delinquent Behaviors: Direct and Indirect Effects of Difference Score- and Perception-Based Measures


adolescent substance use, family process, parent-adolescent relations, parents’ differential treatment, sibling relations


A body of work reveals that parents’ differential treatment (PDT) is linked to adolescents’ adjustment. To date, researchers have generally used one of two different methods of assessing PDT--difference scores or perception-based measures--yet, have largely failed to consider whether these measures index similar or distinct aspects of PDT. The current study examined these distinctions and the conceptual and empirical links between these two approaches by assessing the direct and indirect associations (difference scores via perceptions) of PDT and adolescents’ delinquency and substance use. Furthermore, we explored whether these within-family differences were moderated by between-family differences in levels of parenting. Data were analyzed from 282 adolescent sibling pairs (N = 564; older siblings, M = 17.17 years old, SD = .94; younger siblings, M = 14.52 years old, SD = 1.27). Results from structural equation models revealed that for youth in affectively mild (low in conflict and intimacy) and intense families (high in conflict and intimacy), difference scores and perceptions were uniquely and directly linked to adjustment, such that less favored treatment and the perception of less favored treatment was linked to greater participation in delinquent activities and substance use. Additionally, in several instances difference scores for youth in affectively mild and intense families were indirectly linked to delinquency and substance use through the perception of PDT. Discussion focuses on the distinctions and links between these two approaches within the Social Comparison Theory framework and the greater context of family levels of conflict and intimacy.

Original Publication Citation

Jensen, A. C., & Whiteman, S. D. (2014). Parents’ differential treatment and adolescents’ delinquent behaviors: Direct and indirect effects of difference score- and perception-based measures. Journal of Family Psychology, 28, 549-559. doi:10.1037/a0036888

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date



Journal of Family Psychology




Family, Home, and Social Sciences


Family Life

University Standing at Time of Publication

Full Professor