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Wednesday, April 30th, 2014
A large informative sibling study has shown that older siblings who engage in violent criminal behavior influence younger siblings to do the same – especially if the siblings are close in age. As this work builds on prior work I’ve conducted with my collaborators, I wanted to expand on the findings and the implications for parenting.
Our research group has observed a similar sibling effect on delinquency in adolescence as well as early (illicit) use of tobacco and alcohol. The finding has been replicated by a number of other research groups. Of note is that in some of our studies, we could control for genetic similarity (by studying siblings who varied in their genetic relatedness, like identical twins versus fraternal twins, and full siblings versus half-siblings). While genetic makeup does convey some risk, we’ve found strong evidence that much of this influence is environmental in nature.
It’s especially important to recognize that there is good evidence that the siblings get into trouble together and function as “partners in crime.” We’ve conducted electronic diary studies in which siblings confirmed in real time assessments (known as ecological momentary assessment) that they were together, and doing things they shouldn’t be doing (often with mutual friends).
There is where age becomes a relevant factor. Sibling effects are driven by relationship dynamics – it’s the siblings who are close in age and who like to hang out with each other. Keep in mind that we’ve controlled for genetics in our studies, so this is an environmental affiliation. Siblings that don’t like spending time together typically don’t influence each other much. There is in fact a particular sibling relationship style that underlies the “partners in crime” phenomenon – it’s when the siblings have high levels of both positivity and negativity. They like being with each other – and also spend a lot of their time fighting.
So what should parents do? If you have an older sibling who is getting in trouble, be mindful that if they have a younger sibling (especially one close in age that they hang out with a lot) is at high risk for getting into trouble. It’s time to intervene with the older sibling – not just to help him or her, but also to prevent problems in the younger sibling.
Brothers Playing Video Games Together via Shutterstock.com
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Monday, November 25th, 2013
When discussing the 4 types of sibling relationships, the unique profile of siblings who have high levels of both positivity and negativity in their relationship was flagged. Why is this group particularly salient to researchers who study siblings? Because they are more likely to get in trouble – together.
The idea was formalized decades ago by the late Dr. David Rowe. He was studying twins and examining their similarity for delinquent behavior during the teen years. He found that twins were very much alike in this regard – if one twin was getting into trouble, the other twin was likely to do so as well. But the key observation was that this similarity was not due to genetics – something the twin design gets at by comparing identical and fraternal twins. Similarity for DNA didn’t matter much. What mattered was how much time the twins spent together, and if they had common friends.
Now of course just spending time together with a sibling doesn’t promote delinquency. Over the years, research has shown that the combination of both high positivity – hanging out, having fun, having common friends – and high negativity – fighting, arguing – signals the possibility of rule breaking behavior in the teen years. Observational research shows how this can happen. These sibs end up laughing and fighting at the same time – and they end up enjoying and reinforcing each other’s negative behaviors (one hits, the other laughs, hits back, they laugh). Getting into trouble becomes fun. Other studies show how this becomes a mechanism by which an older sibling introduces a younger sibling to substances at very early ages – ages which are problematic. These influences are most prominent when sibs are closer in age (typically within a few years) – but the principle applies to both brothers and sisters (so it’s not just limited to boys).
So what’s a parent to do? How do you know if what’s going on is just part of the complex sib relationship – or the foundation for legal difficulties in the teen years? A few things to keep in mind. First, maintain good limit setting and monitoring – sibs can join forces and undermine parental efforts. Second, don’t let the negative get out of hand in the early years. Just because it’s normative for sibs to argue and fight now and then doesn’t mean it should define their relationship – it becomes habit and carries over to other social relationships. Third, keep an eye on what the older sib is introducing to the younger sib – no 12-year-old should be exposed to drinking or substances.
While sibling relationship features don’t guarantee developmental pathways, having insight into the ways in which the sibling bond can lead to problem behaviors.
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Wednesday, November 20th, 2013
Growing up with a sibling is complicated. Siblings get along – and don’t get along – in many different ways. But there’s a simple principle – when expanded a bit – that guides a straightforward way of making sense of the type of relationship siblings have at a given point in time and development. (I’ve said it that way because the nature of the relationship can change over time … but more on that later).
First, the simple principle. You know that you can categorize a sibling relationship in terms of both positive and negative dimensions. Siblings express different degrees of positivity towards each other – we think about it in terms of how much warmth/affection they display, how much they like spending time with each other, how much they laugh when they are together, how they may express concern for each other. Siblings also (no surprise here) also can exhibit lots of negativity – fighting, arguing, hostility, and rivalry.
Okay, now the expansion. The degree of positivity in the sibling relationship is not highly associated with the degree of negativity. The formal way of saying this statistically is that they are “orthogonal” dimensions – they are not that highly correlated with each other. The better way of saying it is that knowing how much positivity siblings share does not necessarily tell us how much negativity exists in their relationship. You can have high levels of both, high levels of one or the other, or low levels of both.
So … the implication is that you can create, in a simple and descriptive way, 4 types of sibling relationships. The trick is to “rate” each dimension – positivity and negativity – as either high or low. Think of high as “more of rather than less of” and think of low as “less of rather than more of.” Yes, this is an arbitrary way of doing it – but one that actually works quite well empirically in research studies. Once you do that, then you get 4 types of sibling relationships:
- HIGH POSITIVITY, HIGH NEGATIVITY
- HIGH POSITIVITY, LOW NEGATIVITY
- LOW POSITIVITY, HIGH NEGATIVITY
- LOW POSITIVITY, LOW NEGATIVITY
Why are these typologies helpful? They tell us a lot about how a given pair of siblings influence each other:
- Kids who are low on both positivity and negativity tend not to influence each other so much – they kind of quietly co-exist with not a lot of interaction.
- The low positivity/high negativity sibs are the ones who constantly fight and argue and don’t like spending much time together. They can be problematic because they can reinforce hostile and coercive behaviors which spill out to other relationships outside the home.
- Sibs who are high positivity/low negativity tend to complement (and compliment) each other – they function like buddies and as support systems.
- The high positive/high negative sibs are an interesting lot – they spend lots of time together, have mutual friends, are very connected socially, and … are statistically more likely to break rules and get into trouble together, particularly in the teen years. They are the most complex developmentally and clinically and often have similar trajectories … which sometimes are not very good ones.
There are a few key points to keep in mind. Like any type of categorical system, this one makes probabilistic claims, not definitive ones. Age differences matter, as does gender composition. When there are more than 2 kids in a family, all kinds of dynamics exist, including a variety of potentially different sibling relationships. Importantly, sibling relationships can change over time – and as the sibling relationship extends through many developmental phases, it may morph more than once.
All that said, this typology offers a way to think about the different ways that siblings may, or may not, influence each other – and speaks to the range of experiences that siblings have throughout their life.
Baby Sister and Big Sister via Shutterstock.com
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Tuesday, November 19th, 2013
The debate circulates periodically in the parenting world – is it better to be an only child, or to grow up with siblings? Research findings will be cherry picked to support whatever position is endorsed. Personal experience will be cited. But as someone who has observed families – lots of families, all across the country – in many settings (research and clinical), I have a very simple answer to the question of which is better:
Now, of course there are plenty of unique features to being an only child, or being a sibling. But there is so much variation out there it seems absurd to me to claim that, structurally, being an only child versus having siblings is inherently preferable. And I’m not inclined to be swayed by trends in certain studies that point to small statistical effects. Only children are not “spoiled” unless a parent spoils them. There are plenty of “spoiled” children who have siblings. Growing up with a sibling can set a platform for the most intimate and long-lasting relationship a person may have. Then again, there are siblings who can’t stand each other. Some kids who don’t have siblings wish they did – and others grow up fine without one. Come up with any scenario and you can find someone who fits the profile – and someone who doesn’t.
Let’s face it, what really mattes is how a child is brought up – whether there is only one, or more than one, child in a household.
Raising an only child has unique demands. Raising more than one child does as well. But in either case, there’s either good parenting, or not so good parenting – or put another way, a healthy family climate or one that is problematic. That’s the big effect you will see in the data that will tell you plenty about a child – and what kind of person they become.
Plus: Are you ready for another child? Take our quiz and find out!
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Tuesday, September 25th, 2012
By now you’ve probably heard about the daddy blogger generating lots of controversy by stating, in no uncertain terms, that he has a favorite child. Many parents find this to be troubling; others might think he’s being honest. What I want to add to the mix is that the issue of favoritism is actually pretty complicated when you study families over time. Let me explain by making three points that I’ve discovered after years of observing families.
First, I do believe that some parents play favorites. That said, you can’t really define “favoritism” by getting only one person’s take – you really need to study the family as a whole and see how the family system works. Maybe a parent thinks – and articulates – that they have a favorite. This doesn’t necessarily mean that this is a positive thing for the “favorite.” There can be increased expectations and pressure to live up to the billing. There can be, perhaps surprisingly, an insecurity that comes with that status. Sometimes a child that is favored will feel like life at the “top” can be challenging – so that when affection or attention gets shown to another sibling, they start to wonder if they are losing their status. So if you do have a “favorite” keep in mind that it’s probably not especially healthy for any of the kids.
These observations apply to families where there is a blatant favoritism. My second point is that I don’t typically see such extreme favoritism in most families, despite the claim that 95% of parents have a favorite and the rest are lying. Rather, parents respond differently to different traits in their kids. Most typically, kids see themselves as getting the short end of the stick, one way or another! A daughter might complain that the parents are stricter with her than with her brother when it comes to social matters. A younger child might feel dumped on because they have to wear hand me downs. The list goes on and on. Most siblings are really good at figuring out what the other sibs get – but if you prompt them enough they also know what benefits they get as well. (I know, because I’ve done this in lots of studies). So, generally, this whole favoritism thing, in the vast majority of families, is a very nuanced thing. Each kid is different, each parents behaves somewhat differently with each kid, and there are positives and negatives that go along with that.
My final point is that these dynamics can change a lot over time. Parents may “like” one kid better than another at particular moments in time because they are easier to deal with. Think about having a young teen who is acting like, well, a young teen, and a sweet little 6-year-old who loves being with you. Okay, the young teen might cause you a bit more grief. But that might change seven years from now. And that’s how it goes in families and with kids over time. The whole thing is very dynamic. So labeling a “favorite” over the long haul is not as straightforward as it might seem.
So where does this leave us? Given that siblings will inevitably be different people (even identical twins, as I will illustrate in a future blog post this week), I think most healthy families work because parents respect those differences and in fact embrace them. And all the other stuff is just called a typical day.
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