Sibling Rivalry: Squabbling May Lead to Depressive Symptoms, Anxiety, Among Teens

Squabbles over two topics in particular could be especially damaging, researchers say

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Anyone with a brother or sister can attest to the inevitability of conflicts during childhood, but frequent clashes may take a toll.

Squabbling over two topics in particular, researchers say, may put adolescents at risk for depressive symptoms and anxiety.

Psychologists at the University of Missouri reached that conclusion after surveying 145 adolescent sibling pairs over the course of a year. The researchers quizzed the kids on their sibling relationships, and also asked them to answer questionnaires to measure their self-esteem and symptoms of depression and anxiety. They found that kids with high self-esteem at the beginning of the study typically had fewer conflicts with their siblings one year later. But those who reported sibling conflict at the beginning of the study were much more likely to develop new mood problems over the following year.

“There are definitely aspects that are going both ways,” says researcher Nicole Campione-Barr, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, about the possibility that sibling conflict may contribute to future emotional changes, as well as the potential that existing emotional changes may also fuel more squabbles . “But we believe that there are particular types of conflict that are setting kids up for problems,” she says.

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In particular, Campione-Barr and her colleagues have identified two common themes among the sibling arguments that they studied. Kids who clash with their brothers and sisters about “equality and fairness issues” (things like who’s hogging the bathroom and whose turn it is to do the dishes) appear to be at unusually high risk of depressed mood one year later. Conversely, arguing over “personal domain conflicts” (like borrowing items without asking, or hanging around when the other sibling’s friends are over) is associated with anxiety symptoms and lower self-esteem one year later. The findings are published this week in the journal Child Development.

Campione-Barr says the results are somewhat surprising since in previous research, experts had looked at sibling trust and communication, but only found an association between the personal domain conflicts and reduced trust; there was no relationship with between trust and the fairness and equality conflicts.

It’s not surprising that conflicts over personal space may be particularly impactful for adolescents because they’re “going through the process of establishing an individual identity, and establishing autonomy,” Campione-Barr says.

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She believes that arguments and fighting over fairness, in contrast, may often hit one child in the sibling pair harder than the other, and that may be what is bridging a link to depressive symptoms. If one sibling, for example, thinks he’s not getting his fair share of the family resources, or that his parents are tougher on him and make him do more chores than his brother or sister does, those feelings of being treated unfairly may potentially be more psychologically damaging than the arguments themselves.

“We think it has more to do with with kid’s interpretation of what’s going on […], where they stand within the family,” says Campione-Barr.

Parents may help to offset some of these feelings, of course. But they should also remember that as kids get older, intervening in their conflicts can sometimes do more harm than good. Instead of attempting to mediate such squabbles, Campione-Barr recommends that parents may have more success by adopting a neutral position, while still setting clear household rules on the disputed topics, such as time limits on resources that both kids want to use (like video games), and courtesy rules like always knocking before entering someone’s room.

In their journal article, the authors write:

It may be possible for parents to help avoid sibling conflicts in the first place by recognizing that adolescents desire more privacy and personal jurisdiction as they strive for greater autonomy throughout adolescence. In addition, parents can structure trade-offs in chore duties and equal time with the household computer or television between siblings so that siblings have fewer opportunities to compare themselves unfavorably to one another.

Sibling squabbles are an unavoidable part of growing up, says Campione-Barr, but the potentially negative effects of lingering conflicts can be avoided. You can’t change your brothers and sisters, but you can change the way you interact with them.

14 comments
GracePaduano
GracePaduano

While dealing with the squabbles of 2 younger siblings at the moment I know there is more to come.  I appreciate the views shared from an adolescent perspective. Insightful thanks!

www.coachapproachtoparenting.com

JujuCosta
JujuCosta

my sister is weird..

she is like "we have black spots under our eyes

im likem "we??? take me out of this shit darling.. u r the one with the dep shit under ur eyes

GothamKnowledge
GothamKnowledge

@TIME @timehealthland stop the presses! Fighting with family makes people anxious , no way? -_-

CAFCBrandi
CAFCBrandi

@TIMEHealthland Parents, coach prob solving & productive communication. Also be clear why rules may differ per kid. Fair is not mean equal.

Sonn
Sonn

My brother did and said horrible things to me our entire childhood. To this day, our parents maintain that he is a perfect angel (we are both grown, in our mid-thirties, with our own children.) We do not ever speak to each other. We tolerate each other's presence at family events, but as soon as our parents are gone, good riddance. I will never have to be in his hateful presence again.

Parents, listen to your kids, and treat siblings fairly. Don't play them off each other like my parents did because you think you can gain emotionally from it. You wil not live forever, and it is your family (grandchildren and great-grandchildren) in the future who will miss out.

ruraynor
ruraynor

I'm surprised there's no mention here of teenagers who are constantly harassed/bullied by their siblings with insults and constant taunting. A friend of mine ended up bulimic after her older brother called her fat non stop from the age of 12-15. I know lots of people, myself included, who still suffer from insecurities based on sibling feedback/rivalry.

crystaldragon6
crystaldragon6

@TIMEHealthland Siblings have Always fought. Someone has to be alpha.

PUBLISIDE
PUBLISIDE

@standupkid Not to mention what happens when the arguments (that are usually stupid or non-descript) last through adulthood.

KimberlyBlair
KimberlyBlair

As a kid, there's nothing worse than the persistent and recurring feeling that your parents/authority figures don't care about justice, just making you shut up. Learning that the biggest bully in the family always wins is a sure-fire way to make your kids depressed, resentful, and unhappy.  It teaches kids that the people that should care about them the most really don't, and it gives them no place to air their legitimate grievances. AKA, bad parenting.