Family interactions, including mild sibling rivalry, can have a positive impact on a child’s development and social relationships, according to a five-year project at the University of Cambridge.  The study examined the cognitive and social development of children between two and six years old.

The project, called “Toddlers Up,” was an attempt to further investigate why previous studies have suggested that even by the age of four, some children are already exhibiting behavioral problems that interfere with progress in school and other areas.

The study involved 140 children, starting when they were just two years old. The researchers focused on high-risk families, such as low-income and teen parent families; 43 percent of the children had mothers who were still teenagers when their first child was born, and 25 percent of the families had household incomes below the poverty line.

A variety of tests were given over the course of the five year study: video observations of the children interacting with their parents, siblings, friends and strangers; interviews and questionnaires with parents, teachers and the children themselves; and various tests designed to assess the children’s language and planning skills, working memory and inhibitory control.

One of the most interesting findings concerned sibling relationships.  Even in cases where it was a little bit rocky, the interactions were shown to have a positive effect on a child’s early development.

The research team warns, however, that continuous sibling rivalry can result in behavioral problems and relationship problems later in life.  Milder forms of fighting, however, were actually shown to have a positive effect on childhood development.

“The traditional view is that having a brother or sister leads to a lot of competition for parents’ attention and love,” author Claire Hughes, Ph.D., said. “In fact, the balance of our evidence suggests that children’s social understanding may be accelerated by their interaction with siblings in many cases.”

“One of the key reasons for this seems to be that a sibling is a natural ally. They are often on the same wavelength, and they are likely to engage in the sort of pretend play that helps children to develop an awareness of mental states.”

Video transcripts in which pairs of siblings were involved in pretend play reveal that this is an instance in which siblings can talk about thoughts and feelings in depth.  In fact, they often show what the researchers call “emotional scaffolding,” in which children create a storyline that helps them develop a deeper awareness of different mental states.

Even during obvious sibling rivalry, such as when one child was arguing with or teasing the other, the younger one was often exposed to emotionally rich language from the older one.

So although younger siblings showed lower rates of talking about emotions at age three than their older brothers and sisters, their social understanding greatly increased by age six, and they were talking about emotions on an almost equal level.

The study also shows that the quality, as well as the quantity of conversations parents have with their children concerning thoughts and feelings, enhances their child’s social understanding.

Mothers who were good at developing connected and constructive conversations around their child’s thoughts or feelings created a better emotional scaffold, developing a consistently higher level of social understanding by the age of four.

“The children who performed best on tasks designed to test their social understanding at the age of six came from families where the mother carried out conversations in which they elaborated on ideas, highlighted differences in points of view, or tuned into children’s interests,” Hughes said.

“A lot of attention has been given to the beneficial impact of children being exposed to lots of family conversation. This shows we need to focus on the nature and quality of that conversation as well.”

The research is part of a new book by Hughes called “Social Understanding and Social Lives.”

Source:  University of Cambridge