Summary: A new study suggests that equal treatment of siblings by parents fosters better sibling relationships.
Analyzing retrospective reports of 325 college-age adults, the researchers found that parental differential treatment and family cohesion work in tandem to shape sibling relations. However, excessive levels of such treatment can undermine the positive effects of family cohesion on sibling relationships.
Experts suggest that when it’s impossible to treat siblings equally, parents should explain the reasons for any differences in their approach.
Parental differential treatment (PDT) and family cohesion significantly impact sibling relationship quality.
Extreme levels of PDT can negate the positive effects of family cohesion on sibling relationships.
Fathers’ differential treatment emerged as a more substantial factor in influencing sibling relationship quality compared to mothers’ differential treatment.
Source: University of Kansas
Here is some free, evidence-based parenting advice: Try at all costs not to discipline or otherwise treat your children differently, lest they grow up to resent it and each other.
That is the main finding from a new study by two scholars in the University of Kansas Department of Communication Studies.
Using the retrospective reports of 325 college-age adults, the study found that parental differential treatment toward offspring and family cohesion work together to affect siblings’ relationship quality. Specifically, the overall family climate of emotional connectedness helps promote better sibling relationships.
The paper is published in the journal Family Relations.
With extreme levels of parental differential treatment, or PDT, however, some positive implications of family cohesion no longer exist for sibling relationship quality.
The authors of the study urged fathers, who often play a disciplinarian role, to be aware of this potential and to avoid it by treating siblings equally whenever possible. If circumstances make that impossible, they wrote, parents should explain why they are treating siblings differently.
“Young adults’ retrospective reports of family cohesion, parental differential treatment, and sibling relationships” was published online in Family Relations.
Its authors are Weimiao Zhou and Alesia Woszidlo. Zhou recently graduated with her doctorate from KU’s communication studies department, where Woszidlo is an associate professor.
Informed by family-systems theory, the authors examined how parental differential treatment affected the relationship between family cohesion and sibling relationship outcomes.
PDT can consist of “differential affection (e.g., parents showing different amounts of love, warmth, and care to their children) and differential control (e.g., parents showing different amounts of controlling behavior such as disciplining, punishment, and blame to their children,” they write.
In the case of both mothers and fathers, PDT was found to negatively affect family cohesion and sibling relationship quality, the authors wrote. This is consistent with past research as well.
“But in this particular study, fathers’ differential treatment emerged as a more robust moderator, in comparison to mothers, with regard to the strength (of the relationship) between cohesion and sibling relationship quality,” Zhou said.
For instance, the authors write, “The present study suggests that fathers who display different amounts of control (e.g., showing different amounts of strictness, blame, discipline, and punishment) toward two offspring is likely to weaken the positive effects of family cohesion on sibling affection.”
Family cohesion, Zhou said, “means that families have lots of routines that promote togetherness, as well as parents who try to treat children as equal. Those two factors work together to promote the siblings’ relationships.”
Treating siblings equally does not always mean treating them exactly the same, according to the authors. Sometimes differential treatment is warranted and needed, they wrote, especially when siblings differ in age or have varying developmental needs.
“It’s OK to show differentiation,” Zhou said. “It’s just maybe that fathers need to provide more information about why they engage in differential treatment to help their children process the reasoning part of PDT, so as to reduce that kind of negative effects … to help the siblings to have pro-social behaviors and more positive interactions.”
Young adults’ retrospective reports of family cohesion, parental differential treatment, and sibling relationships
Using young adults’ retrospective reports, the current study examines the moderating effects of parental differential treatment (PDT) on the association between family cohesion and sibling relationship quality during adolescence.
Sibling relationships in adolescence carry great implications for individual development. However, little is known about the potential interactions between family cohesion and PDT on sibling affection and hostility.
Retrospective data were collected from 325 young adults (M = 19.50 years, SD = 1.25) who recalled family of origin experiences with parents and a target sibling closest to their age.
Family cohesion was positively associated with sibling affection and negatively associated with sibling hostility. Additionally, fathers’ differential control attenuated the relationship between cohesion and sibling affection and both mothers’ and fathers’ differential affection attenuated the relationship between cohesion and sibling hostility.
Findings on the main effects suggest that perceived family cohesion is a crucial factor that promotes better sibling relationships (i.e., higher affection and lower hostility). However, offspring’s perceptions of PDT can affect the relationship between family cohesion and sibling relationship quality, such that extreme levels of parents’ (especially fathers’) differential affection and control weaken the association. The significant moderation emerged with differences in parental sex (i.e., mother and father) and PDT dimensions (i.e., affection and control).
To help siblings engage in more affectionate and fewer hostile interactions, parents (especially fathers) should consciously work to provide equal treatment toward their offspring and work on providing more contextual information when they have to show differentiation.