Skip to Content

Penn State study explores sibling rivalry

by Allison Robertson

Sibling rivalry isn’t uncommon. Even the closest of siblings have their moments of conflict. But what if those very conflicts could improve people’s relationships with their peers?
Dr. Susan McHale, professor of human development and director of the Social Science Research Institute at Penn State, and Dr. Mark Feinburg, research professor and senior scientist at Penn State, have been studying sibling and family relationships for many years.
According to McHale, they observed that some children got along well while other children didn’t. She said she couldn’t help but wonder what it was that some families were doing that worked. Her curiosity sparked the idea for the “Siblings Are Special,” or SIBS, project.
“The SIBS intervention sought to answer the question if good sibling relations cause better behavior in children,” said Anna Solmeyer, a postdoctoral scholar at Penn State University who analyzes data for the SIBS project. “In 2009, the team of sociologists contacted school districts in the area to get a list of families who had at least two kids with one child in fifth grade and the other in fourth, third or second grade.”
After sending out 500 letters, 174 families agreed to participate in the intervention. The families were then randomly assigned to either the control or intervention group.
“Our goal was to design and implement a program that was really focused on the sibling relationship and parenting issues that arise when it comes to parenting multiple children,” Solmeyer said. “We weren’t trying to recruit people who had problems; we were just drawing from the whole community. So, there were some kids who came in who…were fine, and other siblings had many more problems.”
Solmeyer said the aim was to get the kids right before their transition into middle school, where there’s more risky behavior involving drugs and alcohol, in an attempt to “try to give them this dose of support and building positive relationship.”
“In the SIBS intervention, every set of parents, both in the control groups and the intervention groups, got a book about sibling rivalry and how to control it,” Solmeyer said. “The intervention group also had to attend an afterschool program. Each set of siblings attended 12 hour and a half sessions together with a total of eight kids in each group.”
“Every session was different,” McHale said. “Some sessions, the group leaders focused on social skills training, social problem solving and picking win-win solutions.”
According to Solmeyer, the goal for these after school activities was to promote positive sibling relationships and also to try to give each sibling some tools to deal with sibling conflict, jealousy and rivalry.
“The group leaders used a tool called the “red light”…like a traffic light,” Solmeyer said. “If you feel like you’re getting upset or angry with your sibling, put on the red light, and just stop and figure out…“How I am feeling and why I am feeling th