Strong Sibling Bond May Buffer Effects of Parental Conflict
Children who regularly witness hostile arguments between their parents are at greater risk for developing mental health problems. However, many who grow up in conflict-ridden homes never go on to develop any psychological issues.
In a new study, researchers wanted to know why some children appear to be protected from the negative impact of witnessing repeated hostility between their parents. They discovered that having a good relationship with a sibling may help buffer the distress of ongoing family conflict.
The study, published in the journal Child Development, was conducted by a research team from the University of Rochester, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the University of Notre Dame.
“Most children not only grow up with a sibling but spend more time interacting with siblings than with any other family member,” said Dr. Patrick T. Davies, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, who led the study.
“We showed that having a good relationship with a brother or sister reduced heightened vulnerability for youth exposed to conflicts between their parents by decreasing their tendencies to experience distress in response to later disagreements between their parents.”
The researchers defined a good relationship as one in which there were high levels of warmth and problem-solving and low levels of conflict and detachment.
The study involved 236 families, including children with at least one sibling who wasn’t a twin, their mothers, and their fathers. The families, most of which were white and middle class, were evaluated when the children were 12, 13 and 14 years old.
Conflict levels between parents were measured by observing arguments between mothers and fathers, who were asked in the lab to discuss topics of disagreement. The quality of sibling relationships was gauged by mothers’ verbal responses to interview questions about siblings’ closeness and conflict, which the authors acknowledge may limit accuracy.
Adolescents reported their distress levels regarding family conflicts. And adolescents, mothers, and teachers completed questionnaires to evaluate the youth’s psychological problems (e.g., aggression, depression, anxiety, hyperactivity).
The findings show that adolescents who were exposed to parental conflicts had greater distressed responses to conflicts a year later; greater distressed responses, in turn, predicted mental health issues in the teens in the subsequent years.
However, teens who had strong relationships with their siblings were protected from experiencing these distressed responses while witnessing their parents fight, and ultimately were protected from subsequent mental health problems. These protective effects were found among siblings of different ages and combinations of genders.
“Relationships with siblings protected teens whether we defined a good bond as one that included warmth and problem-solving skills or one that had low levels of destructive conflict or disengagement,” said Dr. Meredith Martin, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who coauthored the study.
“Strengthening sibling relationships may not only directly foster children’s psychological adjustment, but also offer new approaches to counteracting the risks associated with experiencing hostility and unresolved conflicts between parents.”
The researchers note that since the families were mostly white and middle class, the findings should not be generalized to families of other races and socioeconomic statuses.
Pedersen, T. (2018). Strong Sibling Bond May Buffer Effects of Parental Conflict. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2018/06/20/strong-sibling-bond-may-buffer-effects-of-parental-conflict/136339.html