Children who experience recurrent destructive conflicts between their parents are at a higher risk of developing mental health problems later. However, if they share a strong bond with their sibling it may protect them against the negative effects of parental strife, a new study has found.
The study, published in the journal Child Development, suggests that adolescents who witnessed high levels of acrimony between their parents had greater distressed responses to parental conflict a year later.
Those responses, in turn, predicted mental health problems in the subsequent year. Yet, the researchers show that teens with strong sibling relationships are protected from experiencing this kind of distress in response to later parental disagreements and fights.
According to the researchers, the siblings serve many of the same functions as peers. They may be involved in joint activities such as sports and introduce each other to settings and relationships outside the family that help to distract them from the distress in high conflict homes.
"Children may be using their siblings as sources of protection and emotional support -- that is, as attachment figures," said lead author Patrick Davies, Professor at the University of Rochester in the US.
"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," Davies added.
For the study, the researchers examined 236 adolescents and their families.
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 relied on observations, semi-structured interviews with mothers about the relationship of the closest-aged siblings, and surveys.
"We showed that having a good relationship with a brother or sister reduced heightened vulnerability for youth exposed to conflicts between their parents by decreasing their tendencies to experience distress in response to later disagreements between their parents," Davies noted.