From Spats to Brats

What does it take to raise kids whose squabbling is benign? Or at least not lethal? One major ingredient is a marriage without open conflict. When discord surfaces between parents, finds a team of Los Angeles researchers, there's negative fallout on sibling relations.

The effect is indirect, reports educational psychologist Osnat Erel, Ph.D., with the hostility between adults typically spilling over into the mother-child relationship. Erel and colleagues videotaped 73 pairs of same-sex siblings, ages three to nine, while they played. Meanwhile, their mothers filled out extensive questionnaires about their children, parenting practices, and marriages.

The team found that the more marital problems the mothers reported, the more likely they were to resort to punitive discipline techniques with both children. When mothers apply so-called power-assertive means of parenting notes Erel, now at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the senior sibling engages in a show of force, applying aggressive and dominating tactics against the younger child.

In kick-the-cat fashion, the youngsters are only handing down what is done to them. Senior siblings treat their junior sibs worse than the younger ones treat them.

"Negative sibling interaction is linked with negative family interaction," the team says in Developmental Psychology. The family responds as a whole system, with trouble cascading from the marital to the parental and sibling relationships.

Sibling fighting, researchers now know, is not necessarily harmful. It is an arena for children to learn to solve conflicts, especially emotionally heated ones. But that only happens when home is a generally happy place to be.

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