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Study Enlists Siblings to Prevent Behavior Problems

From guest blogger Alyssa Morones

Siblings may be more than just reliable play-mates (or arch-nemeses, as the case may have it). In a new study published this month in the Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers at Pennsylvania State University describe how they harnessed the power of sibling relationships to encourage healthy childhood development and improved achievement.

The study built on a growing body of research that suggests sibling relationships can be highly influential in a child's development and behavior. Negative sibling relationships can lead to impaired social skills, depression, exposure to risky situations, and parental stress—all of which can impact a child for the rest of his or her life.

More than just looking at how siblings might influence each other, the study actively sought to create positive sibling relationships and then examine how these relationships affect children's academic and social performance. To do this, researchers developed the Siblings Are Special (SIBS) trial program.

The program was held after school for 5th graders with younger siblings who are between 2nd and 4th grades. For 12 weeks, the 5th graders and their siblings attended weekly group sessions and three "family nights", which included their parents, after school. The trial involved 174 families from 16 schools, both rural and urban, throughout Pennsylvania. Half of the families—the "intervention" group—attended the SIBS program. The control group did not.

In the SIBS program, children worked on improving their warmth toward one another and were engaged in joint decision-making activities. The sessions also focused on emotional understanding and fair-play skills and researchers worked with parents to teach them best practices for parental involvement and managing sibling conflict.

Pre- and post-tests, in addition to parent and teacher feedback, revealed that the program enhanced positive sibling relationships and improved parenting strategies.

Children in the intervention group, compared with those in the control group, had lower levels of problem internalization and higher levels of self-control and higher social competence and academic performance. Additionally, mothers of the intervention-group children reported fewer symptoms of depression than their control-group counterparts.

The intervention program was not equally successful on all measures of siblings' relationships, though, indicating room for improvement, but researchers hope that this will be a starting point for incorporating sibling relationships into prevention programming.

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