Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Linkages between Parents' Differential Treatment, Youth Depressive Symptoms, and Sibling Relationships

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Linkages between Parents' Differential Treatment, Youth Depressive Symptoms, and Sibling Relationships

Article excerpt

We tested social comparison predictions about cross-sectional and longitudinal associations between parents' differential treatment of siblings and both youth depressive symptoms and sibling relationship qualities from middle childhood to late adolescence, controlling for dyadic parent-child relationships and siblings' ratings of parents' fairness. Participants were parents and first- and second-borns (M = 11.8 and 9.2 years old at Year 1) from 201 White, middle/ working-class families. Three-level models revealed both cross-sectional and longitudinal linkages between differential treatment and outcomes. For example, youth whose parent-child relationships decreased in warmth relative to those of their sibling reported increases in depressive symptoms and decreases in sibling warmth. Gender and age moderated differential treatment-depressive symptoms associations; birth order moderated differential treatment-sibling relationship associations.

Key Words: adolescence, depression, middle childhood, parental differential treatment, sibling relationships.

Parents' differential treatment is a key component of siblings' nonshared experiences within the family. Indeed, cross-sectional research documents that children monitor their own versus their siblings' relationships with their parents beginning at an early age (e.g., Dunn & Munn, 1985), and that differential treatment is associated with youth adjustment, sibling differences in adjustment, and the quality of the sibling relationship from childhood through adulthood (e.g., Brody, Stoneman, & McCoy, 1992a, 1992b; Dunn, Stocker, & Plomin, 1990). Yet several themes regarding differential treatment-outcome links have rarely been investigated. First, parents' dyadic relationships with each sibling and youth's cognitions about differential treatment (e.g., its perceived fairness) may be responsible for at least some of the links between differential treatment and both adjustment and sibling relationships (e.g., Kowal & Kramer, 1997; McHale & Pawletko, 1992). second, siblings' gender, the gender constellation of the sibling dyad, age, and birth order may moderate differential treatment-outcome links (McHaIe, Updegraff, Jackson-Newsom, Tucker, & Crouler, 2000; Tamrouti-Makkink, Semon-Dubas, Gem's, & van Aken, 2004). Finally, little is known about over-time links between differential treatment and both adjustment and sibling relationships.

Social comparison theory and extant research on differential treatment provided the grounding for this study's research goals: (a) to examine cross-sectional and longitudinal associations between differential treatment and both youth adjustment and the quality of sibling relationships from middle childhood to late adolescence, taking into account both dyadic parent-child relationship qualities and fairness ratings, and (b) to test whether the linkages between differential treatment and outcomes are moderated by gender, the sibling dyad gender constellation, siblings' ages, and birth order. In addressing these goals, we drew on data from a 5-year-longitudinal study of 201 White middle- and working-class two-parent families that included four assessments of siblings and their parents, beginning in middle childhood.

Implications of Differential Treatment: Cross-sectional and Longitudinal Research

Individuals evaluate themselves based on social comparisons (Festinger, 1954); comparative processes may be particularly salient in youth who are exploring roles and identities (e.g., Levine, Smolak, & Hayden, 1994). Others who are physically proximate and similar in personal attributes (i.e., age, gender) are the most likely standards for social comparisons (Wills, 1991). Indeed, given shared characteristics, proximity, and encouragement to do so, siblings often engage in social comparisons with one another, and the quality of a sibling's relationship with parents is salient when it comes to evaluating one's own relationships with parents (e. …

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