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Penn State study explores sibling rivalry

by Allison Robertson

Sibling rivalry isn’t uncommon. Even the closest of siblings have their moments of conflict. But what if those very conflicts could improve people’s relationships with their peers?
Dr. Susan McHale, professor of human development and director of the Social Science Research Institute at Penn State, and Dr. Mark Feinburg, research professor and senior scientist at Penn State, have been studying sibling and family relationships for many years.
According to McHale, they observed that some children got along well while other children didn’t. She said she couldn’t help but wonder what it was that some families were doing that worked. Her curiosity sparked the idea for the “Siblings Are Special,” or SIBS, project.
“The SIBS intervention sought to answer the question if good sibling relations cause better behavior in children,” said Anna Solmeyer, a postdoctoral scholar at Penn State University who analyzes data for the SIBS project. “In 2009, the team of sociologists contacted school districts in the area to get a list of families who had at least two kids with one child in fifth grade and the other in fourth, third or second grade.”
After sending out 500 letters, 174 families agreed to participate in the intervention. The families were then randomly assigned to either the control or intervention group.
“Our goal was to design and implement a program that was really focused on the sibling relationship and parenting issues that arise when it comes to parenting multiple children,” Solmeyer said. “We weren’t trying to recruit people who had problems; we were just drawing from the whole community. So, there were some kids who came in who…were fine, and other siblings had many more problems.”
Solmeyer said the aim was to get the kids right before their transition into middle school, where there’s more risky behavior involving drugs and alcohol, in an attempt to “try to give them this dose of support and building positive relationship.”
“In the SIBS intervention, every set of parents, both in the control groups and the intervention groups, got a book about sibling rivalry and how to control it,” Solmeyer said. “The intervention group also had to attend an afterschool program. Each set of siblings attended 12 hour and a half sessions together with a total of eight kids in each group.”
“Every session was different,” McHale said. “Some sessions, the group leaders focused on social skills training, social problem solving and picking win-win solutions.”
According to Solmeyer, the goal for these after school activities was to promote positive sibling relationships and also to try to give each sibling some tools to deal with sibling conflict, jealousy and rivalry.
“The group leaders used a tool called the “red light”…like a traffic light,” Solmeyer said. “If you feel like you’re getting upset or angry with your sibling, put on the red light, and just stop and figure out…“How I am feeling and why I am feeling that way?””
Solmeyer said that the red light method was chosen because it has been proven to work in other interventions. This method of dealing with a problem requires the child to first count to 10 and calm down and listen to the other sibling explain why he/she did what he/she did. Then, the two can come to a solution or compromise. These sessions also focused on the two siblings being a team.
According to McHale, each group leader told the siblings, “The team only works well if both players feel like they are winning.”
“The siblings talked about what was unique about their relationship, but also focused on their differences to help establish their own identities,” McHale said. “One big issue about siblings is parents’ treatment of [the siblings]. Parents often treat each child differently, and substantial research shows that being the less favored child is associated with adjustment problems, especially if a child doesn’t understand why he or she is being treated differently from a sibling.”
In addition to the after school activities and the red light method, there were three family sessions, which occurred during the intervention.
The group leaders coached parents on when to get involved in the siblings’ conflicts and when to step back and encouraged them to become more involved in activities with their children.
“We wanted parents to understand what children were learning,” McHale said. “We’ve found that when parents spend time in the company of the two children, the children get along better. When the parents are there to supervise and steer children in positive ways, siblings can enjoy one another’s company, and this helps to promote a positive relationship.”
Every session, including the family sessions, ended in compliment circle, where each sibling said something nice about the other sibling and parents gave each of their children a compliment.
“We wanted to give children a chance to say and to hear something nice from their brother or sister,” said McHale.
“In the end, the intervention had positive change,” Solmeyer said. “On average, the children in the intervention group had higher levels of positivity, the teachers saw an improvement in their academic performance and the mother and father’s reports improved.”
According to Solmeyer, symptoms of depression decreased in the mothers involved in the intervention program. The amount of sibling conflict, however, stayed about the same instead of decreasing. Solmeyer said she believes this is because of the way conflict was measured in the intervention. Parents weren’t asked if the type of conflict or the ease of solving conflict changed, but rather if the amount of conflict between the siblings decreased.
McHale said she and Feinburg have submitted a grant proposal to follow up with the siblings in the current invention and to start an intervention on an even larger scale.
Together McHale and Feinberg are now working with colleagues at Arizona State University to bring the “Siblings are Special” intervention to immigrant Mexican-American families. Sibling relationships are very important in these families because families are very close and also because the parents often rely on older siblings for information about such things as school and peer groups.

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