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

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

  • Share
  • Read Later
Universal Images Group

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.

MORE: The Power of Birth Order

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.

MORE: The New Science of Siblings

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.