Strong sibling ties can help buffer adolescents from the stress of witnessing parents’ battles and unresolved conflicts, a small study suggests.
Researchers found that feelings of insecurity and other psychological problems stemming from regular exposure to family conflict were common in seventh-graders who had low-quality bonds with their siblings. With close sibling bonds, kids were less likely to experience these effects later in their teenage years.
“Close and warm sibling relationships can help offset the distress that many kids experience following repeated exposure to interparental conflict,” lead author Patrick T. Davies, a psychology researcher at the University of Rochester in New York, said in a phone interview.
“Their bond can help offset psychological problems by reducing their stress reaction to the conflict,” he said.
Davies noted that not all children exposed to high levels of parental conflict develop problems. Most kids develop along “normal trajectories,” he said.
That’s why more research is turning to examining the factors that give some kids the resilience to get through traumatic situations, the study team writes in Child Development.
Davies’ team collected data between 2007 and 2011 on 236 families of middle-school students in the Northeast and Midwest who had at least one sibling that wasn’t a twin. The families were middle class, three-quarters of them identified as white, and most households included both biological parents, with a small percentage including a step-parent or guardian.
Researchers focused on the seventh-graders’ relationship with the sibling closest to them in age, and on average, these siblings were about three years younger or older. The seventh-graders’ average age at the first assessment was 12.5 years, and they were assessed again at ages 13 and 14 years
Conflict between parents and the nature of the relationships among siblings were gauged through laboratory visits and interviews with the parents and children. The seventh-graders’ emotional insecurity due to their parent’s volatile relationship was assessed through a specialized questionnaire, and other psychological and behavioural problems were reported by their teachers and mothers.
The researchers found that adolescents who witnessed conflict between their parents had greater distressed responses to conflicts a year later, and greater distressed responses, in turn, predicted mental health problems in the subsequent year. However, teens who had close sibling bonds did not suffer subsequent mental health problems.