Fighting parents can be unhealthy for kids — but a close brother or sister helps, study says

A new study from the journal Child Development found that having a close sibling can help a child avoid the mental health issues often brought on by fighting parents.
A new study from the journal Child Development found that having a close sibling can help a child avoid the mental health issues often brought on by fighting parents. Creative Commons

Sometimes siblings can be annoying — but a new study suggests they can also be really helpful during your formative years.

Research published in the journal Child Development found that children with fighting parents have a higher chance of developing a mental health issue. However, those kids with a close siblings were less likely to experience that unsavory side effect, the study says.

For the study, researchers from the University of Rochester, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and University of Notre Dame examined 236 adolescents and their families for three consecutive years. Using surveys, observations and interviews, scientists followed the children from ages 12 to 14 to see what effect parental conflict can have on children, and if different family dynamics change anything.

Children who witnessed a good deal of "destructive" fighting between parents at age 12 were more unsettled by parental disputes in the following year, according to the study.

Sandra Knispel from the University of Rochester explained how that is connected to mental health issues — and how siblings can help.

"The study finds that adolescents who witnessed high levels of acrimony between their parents had greater distressed responses to parental conflict a year later," she wrote. "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."

So what are the best qualities for siblings to have? According to the study, they should have a close bond and be kind to each other — while avoiding detachment and arguments.

And why do researchers think this phenomenon occurs? Lead author Patrick Davies, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, theorized that siblings can help each other make new friends and spend less time in a potentially hostile home.

"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," he said in a press release. “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.”

But the study may not apply broadly because the research is predominately focused on middle-class and white families. The results stayed the same regardless of age and gender.

Another study from the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found children who said they see their parents fight often — and feel threatened by the conflict — have more trouble identifying the emotions of other people.

Children were presented with pictures of couples who were either in a happy, angry or neutral pose. It turned out that children who reported high conflict among their parents were able to accurately read happy and angry feelings, the study says, but struggled to do the same for those in a neutral pose. Those from low conflict homes accurately described all three types of emotions.

Alice Schermerhorn, lead author of the study, told Business Standard that her study shows just how damaging daily bickering can be for kids.

“The message is clear: Even low-level adversity like parental conflict isn’t good for kids."

Lindsay Cochran, 14, has Spinal Muscular Atrophy. She has never walked and has moderate to weak gross motor muscle control. Trent Cochran, 17, was the 2017 Kansas 6A high school cross country champion out of Gardner-Edgerton. He says he runs for h