Sibling Rivalry and Depression

twin girls fighting over a doll

As a mother, you have many responsibilities and many hats to wear. One of these may too often be referee. Squabbling between your children can be an annoyance, but new research is showing that it may be more serious than that. Sibling conflict is now being linked to depression and anxiety. It may be that occasional bickering and fighting is normal, and maybe even healthy, but constant battles are causing damage and it should be mediated and stopped.

The Research

A study conducted by psychologists at the University of Missouri delved into the world of sibling rivalry and the possible negative consequences of all that fighting and competing. The participants of the study were 145 pairs of adolescent siblings. They were studied over the course of a year by the researchers. The study involved answering questions about their sibling relationships, about self-esteem and depression and anxiety symptoms, and filling out psychological questionnaires. The researchers evaluated the responses throughout the year looking for changes and making correlations between self-esteem, fighting, and symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The Findings

The researchers found many connections between the elements of the questionnaires. For instance, the adolescents with higher self-esteem at the beginning of the year-long study had experienced fewer conflicts with siblings overall throughout the study. Those who reported conflicts at the start of the study were more likely to have depressive or anxious symptoms over the course of the year. The researchers believe that the correlation between conflict and mental health issues goes both ways: that teens with a lot of conflict are more likely to then develop depression and anxiety, and those with mental health symptoms are more likely to get involved in sibling conflicts.

The research delved deeper than just a simple correlation between fighting and depressive symptoms. They found that certain types of conflict were particularly problematic. Two types of fighting seemed to create depression or anxiety by the end of the year of study. Siblings who fought over issues of fairness or equality tended to end up with symptoms of depression over time. This kind of conflict could include issues such as who gets more time in the bathroom, who is allowed more freedom or a later curfew, or perceptions of different treatment from parents. Siblings that fought over personal space and domains, such as sharing a bedroom, borrowing clothing without asking, or perceptions of stealing friends, were more likely to experience anxiety and lowered self-esteem.

What the Results Mean

The results regarding personal space and conflicts were not surprising to researchers. This type of rivalry is common among adolescents who are developing their identities and want to be distinct from their siblings. In previous studies, this type of fighting was linked to trust in sibling relationships. The link to self-esteem and anxiety sheds new light on this age-old type of sibling conflict, however.

The fighting that occurs between siblings regarding fairness and equality seems to be linked to depression because it is often lopsided. Typically one member of a sibling pair feels that he or she is being treated unfairly and this can lead to depressed feelings. In most cases, the unfairness is a perception of one sibling that the other does not share and may not be a true interpretation of reality.

How to Help

As a mom, you have a lot of sway over your children, even if they are teens. Knowing when to mediate conflicts and how to do so can help you to mitigate the negative possible side effects of sibling fights. The first thing to understand is that you need not get involved in every squabble. It is helpful to let siblings work out many issues on their own.

If you begin to see, however, that one child consistently feels an inequality or unfairness, you may want to intervene. As this is often a perception and not a reality, talk to your child about how he feels and ask how you can make him feel like everyone is treated fairly in the household. Make sure that chores are divvied up equally and that siblings have responsibilities and rights commensurate with their ages.

As for the squabbles over personal domains, a hands-off approach may be best. Remain neutral in most of these fights, but be sure that each child has access to his or her own personal space and equal access to certain shared items such as television or video games. Teens need privacy and personal space to create their own identities, so be sure that they each have these required tools and let them work things out on their own.

Learn More About Our Programs

Change Your Life

Don’t wait another day to get the help you or a loved one needs. Call to speak to a recovery specialist now.