Mind & Body

Strong Sibling Relationships Can Counteract Family Conflict

Do you have younger siblings? Then you know how obnoxious they can be. They're always following you around, getting your toys sticky, and asking a million annoying questions. What about older siblings? They're even worse — a bunch of bullies who always have the perfect put-down to make a little brother or sister feel awful. Well, as it turns out, even if your relationship with your sibling was a bit ... contentious, that relationship might have protected you from some even worse effects.

Gotta Be Cruel to Be Double-Blind

In this study, led by University of Rochester psychology professor Patrick T. Davies, researchers recruited 236 kids with an average age of 12 and a half, along with their parents, to gauge the effects various family relationships had on their psychology in the long run. Specifically, they hoped to see if children who saw a lot of family conflict could have the negative effects deflected by a closer relationship with one of their siblings. As it turns out, they can — and that relationship doesn't have to look like Beaver and Wally's to help the kid grow up to have a happy and healthy mind.

To see how family conflicts played out in their participants' lives, the researchers had to be a little cruel. With the whole family together, they encouraged parents to talk about a subject that they disagreed about. While the argument unfolded, the researchers noted two factors. First of all, how acrimonious did the fight become? That could give them a sense of what life at that particular home might be like, or at least show how the parents modeled disagreements for their kids. Second, they gauged how the child reacted to seeing their parents have a fight.

After gathering what they could learn from making preteens watch their parents fight, the researchers had other important data to uncover. They asked the kids' teachers and other authority figures about what kinds of behavioral issues they'd demonstrated, if any, and they asked the mothers about the kids' relationships with any siblings they might have. Finally, they spoke to the kids themselves to get a sense of how they experienced distress at moments of intense family conflict. Soon enough, a correlation between sibling relationships and psychological well-being came into focus.

Brother, Can You Spare My Mind?

When they checked in on the kids and their families about a year later, the researchers found that those that had witnessed particularly contentious arguments between their parents were more likely to display a greater distressed response to a conflict, even after a whole 12 months. That was associated with more mental health issues for the kids in subsequent years — just in case you needed any more proof that a conflict-filled home life isn't good for kids.

But remember how the researchers asked the moms about how their children got along with their siblings? They're the first to admit that this isn't the most unbiased way to make the call, but it did lead to a clear pattern. Among the kids who had a strong relationship with their siblings, the negative effects of combative parents were almost entirely wiped out. Incredibly, this remained true regardless of the kids' gender, age, and other factors — and even if their relationship was itself largely defined by competitive rivalry. As long as the two siblings felt a close bond to each other, both were able to weather distressing fights among family members. Guess that means we were actually helping our siblings by hogging the Nintendo all those years.

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Sibling rivalries might be good for long-term mental health, but so are less competitive relationships — and those make a lot less noise. In "Siblings Without Rivalry" (free on Audible with your trial membership), you can learn how to forge more peaceful relationships between your kids. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas July 6, 2018

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