Strong sibling bonds help kids deal with parental conflict

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK 

A recent study by researchers has found that having good relationships with siblings can protect children from the negative effects of high conflict parent interactions.

A total 236 adolescents and their families took part in the study, which involved researchers from the University of Rochester, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the University of Notre Dame.

Those who bore witness to significant strife in the home between parents had higher levels of stress about parent conflict a year later.

However, the study also found that in cases where the adolescent had a strong bond with siblings, the levels of distress they experienced were significantly lower.

According to the University of Rochester's Newscenter, who added that the families were predominantly white, middle class, "The families were followed over the course of three years—with families' being measured at three intervals when their children were first 12, then 13, and finally 14 years old. The study's multi-method design relied on observations, semi-structured interviews with mothers about the relationship of the closest-aged siblings, and surveys."

Lead researcher Professor Patrick Davies says "Children may be using their siblings as sources of protection and emotional support - that is, as attachment figures." 

Davies then notes an interesting outcome of the findings. "If this were the primary reason for the protective effects, one might expect that younger siblings would benefit significantly more from being able to access support from an older sibling who is more capable as serving as a source of support. But this wasn't the case."

The research team then surmised that there were other factors at play like siblings leapfrogging into more peer-like relationships than stereotypical sibling relationships characterised by conflict and competition. They might together, seek to participate in the same activities that remove some of the stress of living in a high conflict home.

"Additionally, siblings may develop friendship bonds that involve shared warmth, disclosure about concerns, and support and corrective feedback—such as becoming a sounding board—for their perceptions about family life," says Professor Davies.

If children are able to seek support in someone they trust within the home, and can express their difficulties, they are protected from the particular psychological vulnerabilities of isolation within a high conflict environment. The study states in its conclusion that good sibling relationships help teenagers "...to process and regulate in the aftermath of their exposure to the conflicts.

Feeling like we are part of a team is critical for the health of people in many different environments. So it makes sense that having a sibling in a trusted friendship role has a protective function when it comes to the mental health of kids in unstable homes.