Sibling rivalry may lead to poor wellbeing

Teaching siblings how to manage conflicts may be a valuable lesson

Two kids fighting over a lollipop
Fighting over a lollipop? Teach them to resolve it themselves

“Comparison is a death knell to sibling harmon,” said Elizabeth Fishel, an American writer. Well, sibling rivalry affects a child’s overall wellbeing. As per a study conducted by Penn State, if we can reduce the rivalry, the child’s life improves not only in terms of academic performance but also in terms of mental health.

Mark Feinberg, Research Professor at the Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development—who lead the study—says, “Negative sibling relationships are strongly linked to aggressive, anti-social and delinquent behaviours, including substance abuse.On the other hand, positive sibling relationships are linked to all kinds of positive adjustment, including improved peer and romantic relationship quality, academic adjustment and success, and positive wellbeing and mental health. With this program, we wanted to help siblings learn how to manage their conflicts and feel more like a team as a way to improve their wellbeing and avoid engaging in troublesome behaviours over time.”

The researchers studied 174 families living in both rural and urban areas. Each of the families had one child in the fifth grade and a second child in the second, third or fourth grade. The researchers collected data from the parents, interviewed each of the siblings privately and videotaped family interactions. They also videotaped the siblings as they planned a party together.

The research team also gave a popular book on ways to parent siblings to each of the families—including those in the control and the intervention groups—to see if the intervention would yield benefits above and beyond having access to such a parenting book.

The key study was whether a special programme called “SIBS”[SIBlings are Special] made any difference in comparison to families that did not undertake the programme. The 174 families who participated in the study were randomly assigned to take part in SIBS or to be in the control group.

The programme included a series of 12 after-school sessions in which the researchers used games, role-playing activities, art activities and discussions to teach small groups of sibling pairs how to communicate in positive ways, how to solve problems, how to come up with win-win solutions and how to see themselves as part of a team rather than as competitors. The program also included three ‘family fun nights’ in which the children had the opportunity to show their parents what they had been doing in the after-school sessions.

“We found that the siblings who were exposed to the program showed more self-control and social confidence; performed better in school, according to their teachers; and showed fewer internalizing problems, such as depressive symptoms, than the siblings in the control group,” said Feinberg.

Obviously the programme helped siblings to bond better, but it also helped the parents.

“The program helped parents use more appropriate strategies for parenting their kids,” said Feinberg. “In addition, intervention mothers reported significantly fewer depressive symptoms after the program than control mothers, perhaps because their kids were doing better and they were less worried about them. No effects of the program were seen for fathers regarding depression,” he added.

This study was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Can we learn anything from this study? Rather than just resolve conflicts for children if we, as parents, teach them how to communicate, discuss, and find an mutually acceptable solution…that would be a great gift.

“We think that by encouraging siblings to feel like they’re part of a team, and by giving them tools to discuss and resolve issues, parents can help their kids develop more positive relationships with each other, which can benefit everyone in the family,” said Feinberg. For example, if the kids are fighting over what television channel to watch or whose turn it is, we might suggest that a parent not resolve the issue for them, but instead give them just enough help so that they can calmly discuss and resolve the problem on their own. When siblings come up with their own solutions, they may be more likely to use those solutions again in the future.



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