How parents can keep teen siblings from fighting

August 16, 2000

Parents of teen siblings exert a greater influence than previously believed on the relationship between two youths and the amount of fighting between them, says a new study.

"One theory about why parents respond in the ways they do to sibling conflict holds that parents react to their children's personality styles," says Dr. Susan McHale, Penn State professor of human development and family studies and one of the study's researchers. "We found no evidence to support this theory. Instead, we found parents' responses to sibling conflict were shaped by their ideas about the importance of autonomy including the autonomy they experience in their workplaces."

The researchers studied 185 White-American, working and middle-class families with first-born youths averaging age 15 and the second-born averaging age 13.5. In separate phone home interviews, mothers, fathers and both teens described their personal and family relationship qualities and experiences. Families also were telephoned in the evening and asked about how they spent their time that day.

The team examined two forms of parents' direct involvement in their teen children's sibling relationships: the amount of time parents spent together with their two children and the ways in which parents intervened in the sibling conflicts.

The findings by McHale, Kimberly Updegraff of Arizona State University, Corinna Tucker, the University of New Hampshire, and Ann Crouter, Penn State professor of human development and family studies, are published in the August issue of the Journal Marriage and the Family.

Past research says that teenagers grow more detached from family members and are more oriented to peers and popular culture, but this study finds that the time parents spend with their teen children matters: the best predictor of a warm sibling relationship that was low in conflict was the amount of time mothers and fathers spent in the company of their two teen children.

In addition, the study found that parents who see autonomy as more important - for example in their workplace experiences - were less likely to be harsh and punitive when responding to sibling conflict, and their children fought less often with one another.

"We see this pattern even when we take into account parents' education level, which is one important predictor of how parents treat their children," notes McHale, a faculty member in the College of Health and Human Development at Penn State.

Although most findings applied to both mothers and fathers, the researchers did find some gender differences in parent reactions to conflicts and time spent with their teen children. In this study, fathers were more likely to react punitively to sibling conflict whereas mothers were more likely to let siblings work out their differences. An exception to this pattern was when the pair were an older brother and younger sister.

"Mothers may be more concerned than fathers about younger girls' vulnerability during fights with older, and presumably larger and stronger, boys, McHale said.

Mothers also spent more time overall with the two teens than fathers did, especially when they had two daughters. In contrast, fathers spent more time when they had two sons.

"Something as simple as the sex of a sibling can have an important effect on children's experiences with their parents," McHale notes.

The Penn State researcher suggests that parents' spending time in the company of both teen children may reflect greater family cohesion, leading to positive relations between the children. On the other hand, parents who depend heavily on an authoritarian style or punishment to resolve fights between the children seem to further increase negative feelings between them.

"Many studies have shown that parents have an influence on their teens' choice of friends and on how well teens relate to their peers," she says. "But we know much less about how parents socialize their teen children to get along with one another and we will continue to looking at different factors in the future."
EDITORS: Dr. McHale is at 814-865-2663 (office) or at by email;
Dr. Updegraff is at 480-965-6669 (office) or at by email;
Dr. Tucker is at 603-862-2153 or by email;
Dr. Crouter is at 814-865-2647 or at

Penn State

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