Sibling conflicts about personal space can affect teens' emotional well-being later.(Photo: Ryan Mcvay, Getty Images)
Family squabbles are to be expected, especially during times of
holiday togetherness. But a new study suggests that seemingly simple
conflicts between adolescent siblings can have negative consequences for
teens' later emotional well-being.
Researchers report that
conflicts about personal space and property, such as borrowing items
without asking and hanging around when older siblings have friends over,
are associated with increased anxiety and lower self-esteem in teens a
year later. And fights over issues of fairness and equality, such as
whose turn it is to do chores, are associated with later depression in
Not all sibling conflicts are equal, and not all
"influence adolescent adjustment in the same way," says Nicole
Campione-Barr, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at the
University of Missouri and lead author of the study, published today in
the journal Child Development.
"Previous research has
examined the impact of frequency and intensity of conflicts between
siblings, but not how different types of conflict might impact
individual adjustment," she says.
Using interviews and
questionnaires, Campione-Barr and colleagues had 145 pairs of siblings
(average ages 15 and 12) rate different topics of possible conflict with
their sibling, noting the frequency and intensity of the arguments.
researchers examined correlations between the arguments and teens'
self-reports of depressed mood, anxiety and self-esteem after one year,
topics related to fairness and equality and invasion of personal domain
were most common.
"Fights about borrowing things without asking,
going into my room without asking, and other issues about privacy
invasion, such as being around when my friends are over, are
particularly important for adolescents because this is a time in their
lives when they're striving for independence and autonomy from the
family," says Campione-Barr.
Feeling as though someone's always
looking over your shoulder or constantly tagging along and never giving
you personal space "is going to make you anxious and nervous and
concerned about whether you're your own person and whether you'll ever
get to do your own thing," she says. "And it will have a similar impact
on self-esteem as well."
Conflicts associated with fairness are
mostly about "shared resources and responsibilities within the
family," she adds. "If there are a lot of these conflicts, and if they
are particularly frequent, it's more likely an indication that one
sibling is not getting a fair share of the family pie. They're the ones
that are being pushed out and are the less powerful of the two. This is
why we think it's particularly problematic for depressive symptoms."
related to depression were found in all adolescents, regardless of age
or sex, but results related to anxiety and self-esteem appeared to be
more common for some siblings than others -- younger brothers with older
brothers and girls with brothers had more anxiety; teens in
mixed-gender sibling pairs had lower self-esteem.
has shown that sibling conflict has negative implications for youth
adjustment, but this new study, "contributes significantly in showing
that what teens fight about makes a difference," says Susan McHale,
director of the Social Science Research Institute at Penn State
And the findings about the significance of equality
and fairness add to research on parents' differential treatment of
siblings, which is known to have "negative implications for youth
adjustment," McHale says. The new study documents "how these dynamics
cross over to affect sibling relationships, and through those, youth
Although parents may be inclined to intercede and
negotiate these arguments, "some research has shown that by adolescence,
when parents step in too much, it makes the relationship worse and
makes conflict worse between adolescent siblings," says Campione-Barr.
alternatives for preventing disputes and avoiding favoritism include
setting household rules, such as knocking before entering a sibling's
room, she says. Also, sticking to a calendar for chores and setting
defined time limits for turns with household electronics and other
shared devices can help reduce conflicts.