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How Having Siblings Effect Happiness

Something about having a sister – even a little sister – makes 10 to 14-year-olds a bit less likely to feel down in the dumps.

That’s one of several intriguing findings from a new study on the impact siblings have on one another. Brigham Young University professor Laura Padilla-Walker is the lead author on the research, which also sorts out the influence of siblings and the influence of parents within families.

“Even after you account for parents’ influence, siblings do matter in unique ways,” said Padilla-Walker, who teaches in BYU’s School of Family Life. “They give kids something that parents don’t.”

Padilla-Walker’s research stems from BYU’s Flourishing Families Project, and some of her findings were featured in the August 2010 issue of the Journal of Family Psychology. The study included 395 families with more than one child, at least one of whom was an adolescent between 10 and 14 years old. The researchers gathered a wealth of information about each family’s dynamic, then followed up one year later. Statistical analyses showed that sisters tend to protected adolescent siblings from feeling lonely, unloved, guilty, self-conscious and fearful. It didn’t matter whether the sister was younger or older, or how far apart the siblings were age-wise.

This doesn't mean brothers don't matter. The study found that having a loving sibling of either gender promoted good deeds, such as helping a neighbor or watching out for other kids at school. In fact, it was observed that loving sibling relationships foster charitable attitudes more so than loving parents-child relationships. The relationship between sibling affection and good deeds was twice as strong as the relationship between parental affection and good deeds.

“For parents of younger kids, the message is to encourage sibling affection,” said Padilla-Walker. “Once they get to adolescence, it’s going to be a big protective factor.”

Many parents understandably worry about the seemingly endless fighting between siblings. And while it’s true that study found a link between sibling hostility and a greater risk of delinquency, Padilla-Walker sees a silver lining in the data: The fights give children a chance to learn how to make up and to regain control of their emotions, skills that come in handy down the road.

“An absence of affection seems to be a bigger problem than high levels of conflict,” Padilla-Walker said.

BYU professor James Harper and BYU graduate Alex Jensen are co-authors on the new study.

University Communications