Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Still the Favorite? Parents' Differential Treatment of Siblings Entering Young Adulthood

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Still the Favorite? Parents' Differential Treatment of Siblings Entering Young Adulthood

Article excerpt

This study examined within-family stability in parents' differential treatment of siblings from adolescence to young adulthood and the effect of differential treatment in young adulthood on grown siblings ' relationship quality. The author used longitudinal data on parent-child and sibling relations from the sibling sample of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (N =1,470 sibling dyads). Within-dyad fixed effects regression models revealed that the adolescent sibling who was closer to parents went on to be the young adult sibling who was closer to and received more material support from parents. Results from an actor-partner interdependence model revealed that differential parental financial assistance of young adult siblings predicted worse sibling relationship quality. These findings demonstrate the lasting importance of affect between parents and offspring earlier in the family life course and the relevance of within-family inequalities for understanding family relations.

Key Words: family relations, family support, intergenerational relationships, parent-child relationships, siblings, young adults

Bonds with parents and siblings are important resources for individuals across the life course. This is especially true at major life transitions, such as the transition to adulthood, when emotional and material support from parents can have important effects on young adults' adjustment and attainment (Fingerman, Cheng, Tighe, Birditt, & Zarit, 2012; Johnson & Benson, 2012). Yet in many families parents give different amounts of affection and support to different siblings (Fingerman, Miller, Birditt, & Zarit, 2009; Suitor, Pillemer, & Sechrist, 2006). This differential treatment is important both because it could create within-family inequalities in offspring outcomes and because it could undermine the bond between siblings (Conger & Fittle, 2010). It thus is important to understand the roots of differences in young adult siblings' relations with their parents and the implications of those differences for the sibling relationship itself.

Theoretical and empirical work on parent-offspring relations suggests that previous intergenerational relationship characteristics influence current relationship quality and support decisions (Aquilino, 1997; Parrott & Bengtson, 1999). A separate body of work on parents' differential treatment of siblings shows that such disparities are common and can affect sibling dynamics (Whiteman, McHale, & Soli, 2011). This study bridges the gap between these foundations by examining whether parents give more affection and material support to the grown sibling with whom they historically were closer and shared more time and whether disparities in parental affection and material support predict worse young adult sibling relationship quality. I tested these hypotheses using prospective longitudinal data from a large national sample of siblings. The findings contribute new information about the amount of continuity in parental differential treatment across an important developmental transition and about the effect of developmentally relevant domains of such treatment on the sibling bond.


This study drew on intergenerational solidarity theory (Bengtson & Roberts, 1991; Silverstein, Bengtson, & Lawton, 1997) to conceptualize affection, association, and support as self- and mutually reinforcing elements of parent-offspring cohesion. The theory characterizes parent-offspring relations as multidimensional, with the specific dimensions being affection, association (contact), function (support exchange), consensus (value agreement), norms of familial obligation, and structure (opportunity for association). Although there is mixed empirical support for various proposed models of the causal paths among the dimensions, affection, association, and function do appear to be interdependent (Hogerbrugge & Komter, 2012). …

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