The Third Rail of Family Systems: Sibling Relationships, Mental and Behavioral Health, and Preventive Intervention in Childhood and Adolescence

Abstract

Sibling relationships are an important context for development, but are often ignored in research and preventive interventions with youth and families. In childhood and adolescence, siblings spend considerable time together, and siblings’ characteristics and sibling dynamics substantially influence developmental trajectories and outcomes. This paper reviews research on sibling relationships in childhood and adolescence, focusing on sibling dynamics as part of the family system and sibling influences on adjustment problems, including internalizing and externalizing behaviors and substance use. We present a theoretical model that describes three key pathways of sibling influence: one that extends through siblings’ experiences with peers and school, and two that operate largely through family relationships. We then describe the few existing preventive interventions that target sibling relationships and discuss the potential utility of integrating siblings into child and family programs.

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Acknowledgments

The authors recognize and appreciate support for this line of work from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, grant DA025035-02.

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Correspondence to Mark E. Feinberg.

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Feinberg, M.E., Solmeyer, A.R. & McHale, S.M. The Third Rail of Family Systems: Sibling Relationships, Mental and Behavioral Health, and Preventive Intervention in Childhood and Adolescence. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev 15, 43–57 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10567-011-0104-5

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Keywords

  • Siblings
  • Prevention
  • Mental health
  • Substance use