Facebook Twitter

Older siblings’ bad behavior carries impact

Study by BYU professor looks at family relationships

SHARE Older siblings’ bad behavior carries impact

PROVO — Most people who grew up with an older brother will probably tell you this: They took some bullying along the way.

Perhaps it was good natured. Or perhaps it was a bit more sinister.

Regardless, such behavior should be a serious concern, according to a new study, written in part by BYU associate sociology professor Bert Burraston and appearing in the next issue of the Journal of Family Psychology. The study found that antisocial behavior by older brothers can have a negative impact on younger siblings.

"Basically what we found was that in sibling conflicts, the amount of quarreling, fighting and conflict in which the older sibling engaged in . . . made younger siblings more likely to engage in those same behaviors," Burraston said.

Burraston wrote the paper with Jim Snyder of Wichita State University and Lew Bank of the Oregon Social Learning Center.

Two key factors — conflict between siblings and negative examples from other kids brought into the home by the older brother — increased the likelihood that younger children would engage in similar behaviors by 25 percent, the study found.

Researchers measured physical violence, criminal activity, drug and alcohol use and sexual activity as indicators of such behavior.

Burraston said the group found ineffective parenting also plays a strong role in the delinquency of younger children in homes where parents failed to correct the older child's behavior or protect younger children from its influence.

"There are two very important things (parents should learn)," Burraston said. "When they see children fight, they need to teach them pro-social ways to solve problems, not just let the older sibling impose his will through physical force.

"The second is the importance of monitoring — who the older sibling is bringing into the house, who he and the younger children are hanging out with, where they're hanging out and what they're doing."

Robert Williams, a clinical child psychologist at Child and Family Psychology in Orem, said he has seen numerous cases of younger children who are negatively affected by an older brother's poor behavior.

Most of those cases, he said, occur in dysfunctional families where the bonds between siblings are stronger than the ones between parents and children. The key to resolving the problem, Williams said, is involving the whole family in the process.

"It's important for parents to be focused on the whole family, not just the child who is acting out," he said. "We need to think of all the children as being affected."

Doug Goldsmith, executive director and chief psychologist at The Children's Center in Salt Lake City, said older brothers have an influence on the development of the younger children, but there are a number of other factors at play as well.

"Historically, we have see that while (the older child's influence) may be an issue, the younger children grow up in a different environment," he said. "It's more complicated than (the older child's influence); there's not a simplistic cause-and-effect relationship."

Goldsmith agreed with Williams' assertion that parents need to focus on all their children, and not just the ones who cause problems.

"Sometimes the parents become over-involved with the child that is a problem, and that's when the younger children act out," he said. "It's important for parents to remember that they have other children."

That observation appears to be validated by a second study Burraston co-wrote in the same journal, in which researchers followed the effects of parental training courses in New York City.

In that study, parents from 47 families with a pre-school aged child and an adolescent child with a criminal record underwent parenting seminars aimed at helping them raise the younger children.

The study found that teachers and parents alike reported significant improvements in the behavior of the older, troubled children within a short period of time after parents took the course.

The hope of those involved in both studies, Burraston said, is that they will raise awareness of the importance of key family relationships in the developmental process, particularly the responsibility of parents.

"We hope more clinical psychologists and people that study families will focus on what parents can do to prevent children from developing antisocial behavior," he said.

E-mail: jtwitchell@desnews.com