Theses Doctoral

The Impact of Family Contexts and Sibling Relationships on Youth Behavior Outcomes

Ahn, Jihyun

Sibling relationships are central to the lives of American children and, for many of them, they are the longest lasting relationships they will have in their lifetimes. Interactions with siblings often serve as training grounds for other interpersonal relationships, making them particularly important for children who may not have stable adult figures in their lives. Drawing on data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study when children were nine and 15 years of age, this study examines how family contexts are associated with the quality of sibling relationships, how sibling relationships are related to children and youth’s behavioral trajectories, and whether positive sibling relationships are protective in terms of children’s behaviors. A secondary goal of this study was to understand the importance of sibling relationships in the context of other family relationships, such as the mother-child relationship and the father-child relationships. Finally, increases in family fluidity and complexity have led to the increase in many different types of sibling configurations in children’s homes, including half- and stepsiblings. This study sought to understand if there were differential effects of sibling type in terms of relationship quality and its impact on children’s behavior outcomes.

Results from this study indicated that sibling relationships were more positive in single-parent households compared to married-parent households when no other factors other than family structure were taken into consideration. Furthermore, sibling relationship conflict was significantly lower in single-parent households compared to married-parent households when the child was nine. There was strong evidence to support that high sibling relationship conflict was associated with more child-reported and mother-reported problem behaviors, such as engagement in criminal activities toward others, drug and substance use, and engaging in theft and vandalism. Above and beyond the effects of living in a single-parent household or living in a household with high family instability, having highly conflictual sibling relationships were strongly associated with poor behavior outcomes for nine year olds. Slightly different results emerged for when the child was 15. Although having positive sibling relationships was generally associated with a reduced likelihood of engaging in behaviors such as criminal activities toward others, theft, vandalism and drug and substance use, the buffer of having a positive sibling relationship was not enough to counter the negative impact of living in particular family environments.

In examining the quality of sibling relationships and also the effect of sibling relationships on children’s behavior outcomes, one of the most consistent predictors was the child’s report of closeness with his or her mother and father. Close mother-child relationships were consistently associated with more positive and less conflictual sibling relationships, and, to a lesser degree, close father-child relationships.

The goal of this study was to add to the growing body of empirical research on the importance and relevance of sibling relationships. Findings from this study can be used to inform family-based intervention programs for adolescents; intervention programs that aim to increase prosocial behaviors and reduce problem behaviors for at-risk youth should more frequently involve siblings, as targeting sibling pairs to improve social competencies such as conflict and aggression management might have promising outcomes.


  • thumnail for Ahn_columbia_0054D_15242.pdf Ahn_columbia_0054D_15242.pdf application/pdf 815 KB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Developmental Psychology
Thesis Advisors
Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 5, 2019