Growing up with a sister three years older than me, we didn’t always quite see eye-to-eye. I don’t remember any knock-down fights, however, and I think we more or less got along throughout the early years. And by the time we were old enough to really be devious and subvert each other’s lives, we were much more likely to help each other out instead. There wasn’t much rivalry going on.
However, I think that might be more of the exception rather than the rule. There’s a stereotype of sibling rivalry for a reason. And having an aggressive, standoffish relationship with your sibling in the years leading up to high school have been shown to contribute to aggressive, anti-social and delinquent behaviors, including substance abuse. But for those parents out there struggling to keep order in their household, there is hope.
Researchers at Penn State University recently came up with a special program that they dubbed SIBlings are Special, or SIBS for short. The program seeks to improve sibling and family relationship just prior to the older siblings’ transition to middle school, as that time is often marked by increased exposure and involvement in risky behaviors.
And they’ve proven that it works.
In a recent study, researchers took 174 families with an older sibling in fifth grade and a younger sibling in second, third or fourth grade. To all of the families, they provided a book on how to parent siblings. But to half of the families, they implemented their new 12-session program. It included the use of 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. It also included a handful of sessions where children got to show off their work to their parents.
The results were pretty marked. Those who went through the program showed more self-control and social confidence, performed better in school according to their teachers, and showed fewer signs of depression. It also helped their mothers worry less and show fewer depressive symptoms themselves. Obviously, the program had benefits above and beyond simply having access to a parenting book.
So how can parents everywhere take advantage of these findings?
According to Mark Feinberg, research professor in the Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development, “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. So, 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.”
The paper “Siblings Are Special: Initial Test of a New Approach for Preventing Youth Behavior Problems” was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health by Feinberg, as well as Anna Solmeyer, postdoctoral scholar; Michelle Hostetler, research associate; Kari-Lyn Sakuma, research associate and curriculum development expert; Damon Jones, research assistant professor of health and human development; and co-principal investigator Susan McHale, director of the Social Science Research Institute at Penn State and professor of human development.