Individual and Sibling Characteristics: Parental Differential Treatment and Adolescent Externalizing Behaviors

Abstract

Adolescents’ reports of parental differential treatment have been linked to increased externalizing behaviors. The current study investigated whether adolescent self-esteem and sibling relationship characteristics (age-spacing and sibling relationship quality) moderated associations between parental differential treatment and later externalizing behavior. Data was gathered at two assessments from 708 sibling pairs (94% White; 51% male; same-gender pairs <4 years apart in age). Older/younger siblings were aged MAssessment1 = 13.5/12.1 and MAssessment2 = 16.2/14.7 years. We found that higher levels of maternal differential treatment predicted greater residualized gains in externalizing behavior among older siblings who were (a) the same age as their sibling or near-to and had low self-esteem or (b) three years older than their sibling and had higher self-esteem. Higher levels of paternal differential treatment predicted greater residual gains in externalizing for older siblings with wider age ranges (regardless of self-esteem), and among older siblings with high levels of self-esteem (regardless of age difference). Surprisingly, maternal differential treatment was protective in one case: for adolescents with low self-esteem who were at least three years older than their siblings, maternal differential treatment predicted reduced externalizing behaviors. Paternal differential treatment was protective for more youth than maternal differential treatment: older siblings with low self-esteem who experienced paternal differential treatment exhibited decreased externalizing behaviors across adolescence, regardless of age difference. The findings highlight the importance of self-esteem and sibling age-spacing as particularly salient contextual influences in older siblings’ perceptions of maternal and paternal differential treatment, and that maternal and especially paternal differential treatment does not always serve as a risk factor for externalizing problems.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the principal investigators and investigator team not listed as coauthors: Jenae Neiderhiser, David Reiss, E. Mavis Hetherington, and Robert Plomin, and families of the Nonshared Environment in Adolescent Development project.

Authors’ Contributions

E.R. conceived of the study aims, analyzed the data, and drafted the manuscript. K.M. aided in the data analysis and interpretation, and edited the manuscript. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Funding

The Nonshared Environment in Adolescent Development project was supported by National Institute of Mental Health Grant R01MH43373, R01MH48825, and by the William T. Grant Foundation (David Reiss, Principal Investigator [PI]). Data analysis and manuscript preparation were supported in part by the National Institute on Drug Abuse Grant K01DA039288 (Marceau, PI).

Data Sharing and Declaration

The datasets generated and/or analyzed during the current study are not publicly available but are available from Dr. Kristine Marceau on reasonable request. The data from the overall Nonshared Environment in Adolescent Development study are available from Dr. Jenae Neiderhiser at Pennsylvania State University on reasonable request.

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Correspondence to Emily Rolan.

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All procedures involving human participants were in accordance with the APA Ethical Standards in the treatment of the participants and approved by the Institutional Review Board at George Washington University, the Pennsylvania State University, and Purdue University.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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Rolan, E., Marceau, K. Individual and Sibling Characteristics: Parental Differential Treatment and Adolescent Externalizing Behaviors. J Youth Adolescence 47, 2535–2553 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-018-0892-8

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Keywords

  • Siblings
  • Parental differential treatment
  • Sibling relationship quality
  • Externalizing behaviors