This paper explores the relationship between the ownership of public firms and their motivation to implement earnings management practices, providing evidence on whether family businesses differ from non‐family businesses in terms of earnings management practices. In addition, it focuses on the possibility of asymmetrical earnings management policies between periods of stability and economic adversity. Based on a sample of Portuguese listed family‐controlled firms for the 1999–2011 period and using a panel data approach, we find no significant differences in the incentive to manage earnings between public family and non‐family firms, suggesting a compensation between the alignment hypothesis, the long‐term orientation of family firms and the desire to pass firms onto succeeding generations, and the entrenchment effect. The evidence shows that earnings management decreases with firms’ profitability, and non‐family firms’ discretionary accruals are mainly influenced by the board of directors. In crisis periods, the discretionary accruals of family firms are especially influenced by firm size. After controlling for different earnings management measures, the determinants of earnings management practices seem somewhat sensitive to the earnings quality proxies. The results provide evidence that directors and policy makers should prevent earnings management procedures in particular situations.