Improving Sibling Relationships among Young Children: A Social Skills Training Model

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Improving Sibling Relationships Among Young Children: A Social Skills Training Model*

Laurie Kramer** and Chad Radey

A new approach to improving sibling relationships was evaluated in which social skills training was used to directly coach small groups of children (n = 21) in prosocial sibling behaviors. In comparison to a control condition (n = 21), social skills training was associated with mothers' or fathers' reports of.' (I) increased warmth; (2) decreased rivalry; (3) stable levels of agonism and competition; (4) fewer problematic sibling behaviors; and (5) a reduced status/power differential between siblings. Social skills training may hold promise for setting young children's sibling relationships on a positive trajectory.

Disputes among siblings are the most common type of conflict that families face (Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980) and may be quite aggressive and even violent (Felson & Russo, 1988; Roscoe, Goodwin, & Kennedy, 1987; Steinmetz, 1978; Straus et al., 1980; Weihe, 1991). Intractable conflictual relations among young siblings have been shown to be predictive of later difficulties, such as antisocial and disturbed behaviors in adolescence (Richman, Stevenson, & Graham, 1982) and adulthood (Patterson, 1982). These factors have led some investigators to refer to sibling relationships as potential "training-grounds" for violence (Steinmetz, 1978) and for establishing chronic coercive interactions with others (Patterson, 1982).

Although resources do exist for assisting families to respond to sibling conflict, they are limited in several ways (Ramsburg & Kramer, 1995). First, most resources are based primarily on clinical or practical experiences and lack both a theoretical foundation and empirical data to support their effectiveness. In addition, resources for younger children focus primarily on promoting their initial adjustment to the birth of a new sibling and generally do not focus on developing competencies for interacting positively and managing conflict once their sibling becomes a more active partner in the interaction. When attention is devoted to sibling interaction (e.g., Leitenberg, Burchard, Burchard, Fuller, & Lysaght, 1977; Levi, Buskila, & Gerzi, 1977; Olson & Roberts, 1987), recommendations are usually reactive (responding in situations where pronounced sibling conflict already exists) rather than proactive and preventive (working to encourage prosocial interaction among siblings before conflictual processes escalate). Finally, most programs are designed to change parents' behavior with the objective of indirectly changing child behavior. Indeed, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that parents play a substantial role in shaping the quality of children's sibling relationships, particularly as they respond to sibling conflicts (Brody, Stoneman, McCoy, & Forehand, 1992; Ross, Filyer, Lollis, Perlman, & Martin, 1994; Vandell & Bailey, 1992) or work to encourage prosocial sibling behaviors (Kramer & Washo, 1990). For example, Tiedemann and Johnson (1992) found improved sibling behaviors when mothers were taught strategies for promoting child sharing skills. However, even stronger effects may be obtained if we directly support children's acquisition of new sibling interaction patterns. In this research, we evaluate a new approach to improving sibling relationships in which a social skills training model is used to directly coach young children in prosocial sibling behaviors.

The approach of developing interpersonal competencies as a way to improve sibling relationships is unique. However, it is supported by previous research on the early development of sibling relationships (Kramer & Gottman, 1992; Stocker & Dunn, 1990). Kramer and Gottman's (1992) longitudinal study demonstrated the importance of peer relationships and social competence in helping children to establish positive relationships with new siblings. …