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The effect of birth order and sex on perceptions of the sibling relationship among college students.

The current study examined demographic factors (e.g., parental marital status) as well as sex and birth order effects on emetging adults' views of their sibling relationships. One hundred sixty-seven participants completed a demographic and sibling relationship questionnaire designed for the purposes of this study. Factors of the sibling relationship that were examined included rivalry, closeness, and frequency of different types of communication (e.g., e-mail). Middle children emerged as having the strongest opinions about the sibling relationship. For example, middle children predicted more closeness with their siblings in middle and older adulthood versus youngest children. Middle children were also more likely to report that they would be friends with their sibling if they were not related, versus youngest children. Implications of these findings and future research directions will be discussed, including examining age spacing, in addition to birth order, as a possible factor affecting sibling relationships among emerging adults.

Keywords: siblings, emerging adulthood, family dynamics, families

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The sibling relationship is unique because it is one of the few relationships people have throughout their entire life. It is also one of the first relationships individuals ever have. Family systems theory emphasizes the value of the sibling bond, as it is an important subsystem that exists within the family system as a whole (Bush & Ehrenberg, 2003). Mendelson, de Villa, Fitch, and Goodman (1997) argue that role theory may help to provide a theoretical framework for sibling relationship research. A role can be defined in the context of the behavioral norms and expectations that may help define the sibling relationship (e.g., the oldest sibling's role as a potential caregiver is different from the youngest sibling's role as a playmate). It has also been suggested that life-span attachment theory can be applied to the sibling relationship, as the emotional bond inherent in the definition of attachment can be seen in sibling relationships, beginning in childhood (Cicirelli, 1989; Van Volkom, 2006).

In childhood, most siblings have close relationships because they spend a lot of time together and are with each other nearly every day. In adulthood, most siblings no longer live together or see each other every day, which drastically changes the relationship. Growing up, the relationship is somewhat forced, which is why in adulthood the relationship can change. It is up to the individuals to make the decision to choose to maintain their relationship with their sibling. Many factors affect this, including the nature of the parent-child relationship, intactness of the family, communication and maintenance styles, and genetic relatedness (Fortuna, Roisman, Haydon, Groh, & Holland, 2011; Martin, Anderson, & Rocca, 2005; Mikkelson, Myers, & Hannawa, 2011b; Rocca, Martin, & Dunleavy, 2010; Voorpostel & Blieszner, 2008). While much research has been done on the sibling relationship, very little is known about sibling relationships in adulthood. Our knowledge of how the sibling relationship changes later in life is limited, which is what the present study aims to add to this research. This research is useful because it can provide insight and knowledge to anyone who has a sibling. The goal of this study is to add to what is known about sibling relationships, specifically in emerging adulthood. The current study aims to provide a more in-depth understanding of how the adult sibling relationship differs from that of childhood and adolescence, and what factors influence perceptions of the relationship (e.g., birth order).

Siblings come in many different forms, and do not necessarily have to be someone whom one shares both parents. In this day and age, blended families are becoming even more common. A stepsibling or half sibling can have strong bonds even though they are not as genetically related as a pair of biological siblings with both of the same parents. Research shows that the more biologically related a pair of siblings is, the closer their relationship will be (Mikkelson, Floyd, & Pauley, 2011a; Mikkelson et al., 2011b; Tancredy & Fraley, 2006). This has a large impact on how siblings will interact with each other later in life. Siblings who have more biological relatedness will feel closer to one another and communicate more (Mikkelson et al., 2011a; Mikkelson et al., 2011b). This remains true throughout adulthood. This indicates that twins have the closest relationship of all siblings because they are the most genetically similar (Mikkelson et al., 2011a; Mikkelson et al., 2011b; Tancredy & Fraley, 2006). Adopted siblings, therefore, are the least close of all sibling pairs (Mikkelson et al., 2011a; Mikkelson et al., 2011b). While not all siblings are biologically related, they almost always share at least one parent. Parents also play a large role in how strong the sibling relationship will be.

The parent-child relationship is vital because it is almost always the first relationship that a person ever has in life. All other future relationships are based off of this one, including relationships with siblings. The parent-child relationship sets the tone for most other relationships later in life. Close parent-child relationships most often result in close relationships between siblings in adulthood (Fortuna et al., 2011; Voorpostel & Blieszner, 2008). Weak or negative relationships between parents and children have a negative impact on sibling relationships later in life (Fortuna et al., 2011; Voorpostel & Blieszner, 2008). In adulthood, sibling relationships tend to mirror parent-child relationships, meaning that positive relationships with parents will indicate positive relationships with siblings (Frank, 2008). Styles and strength of attachment also can have an effect on relationships between siblings, even in adulthood. The parent-child relationship and family dynamic as a whole can have a large impact on relationships between siblings throughout life. Another family issue that can affect siblings is family intactness.

Coming from an intact family versus a non-intact family can have a large effect on sibling relationships later in life. Whether it be death or divorce, being raised in a non-intact family can have a significant influence on how siblings interact with one another. As divorce is becoming a more prevalent issue in today's society, more research is being conducted on how it affects the family system. Divorce affects offspring just as much as it affects the spouses involved. Siblings who come from an intact family tend to have stronger and more frequent communication in adulthood than those who come from non-intact families (Mack, 2004; Rocca et al., 2010). Siblings who were raised in intact families have much different relationships with their siblings than those who come from divorced families. It was found that adults who were raised in a non-intact family will experience more conflict in their relationships with their siblings than those who were raised in an intact family (Bush & Ehrenberg, 2003; Poortman & Voorpostel, 2008; Riggio, 2001). The type of family someone is brought up in will impact their relationships later in life, including the ones they have with their siblings. This will eventually affect the sibling pair's decision of whether or not they will maintain their relationship throughout adulthood.

In childhood, the sibling relationship is not a choice but usually forced upon individuals. Once adulthood is reached, it becomes a choice whether or not to maintain the relationship. There has not been extensive research in this area, but a few studies have been conducted on the kind of communication styles adult siblings use and how and why they choose to maintain and keep up their relationships later in life. Siblings who report having close relationships with each other are more likely to choose to communicate more (Martin et al., 2005; Myers & Goodboy, 2010; Stocker, Lanthier, & Furman, 1997). Some methods of communication common among adult siblings are phone calls, texts, emails, and in-person meetings. Close relationships between siblings are not the only explanation for maintaining the relationship. Many sibling pairs report continuing their relationships into adulthood strictly because of feelings of obligation rather than emotion (Myers, 2011; Taylor, Greenberg, Seltzer, & Floyd 2008). Once siblings reach adulthood, maintaining their relationship becomes more of a choice, which is why some siblings begin to drift apart (Myers, 2011; Myers & Goodboy, 2010; Stocker et al., 1997). Siblings who choose to maintain their relationship because of obligation most likely do so because they have been doing it their whole life. In most cases, close relationships in childhood were an indicator of close relationships in adulthood, and would result in siblings continuing their relationship well into adulthood and beyond. There is still a great need for more research in this area pertaining to what other kinds of predictors there are for how strong or close the sibling relationship will be in adulthood.

Most research previously done in the area of sibling relationships has focused on childhood. While childhood bonds between siblings can have a large impact on future relationships, not as much is known about how that relationship changes in adulthood and throughout life. Previous work has failed to examine how the adult sibling relationship differs from that of childhood and adolescence. Not enough research has yet been done on what kind of factors influence sibling relationships in adulthood, particularly emerging adulthood, although much has been done focusing on childhood sibling relationships. Research in this area can add to what is already known about sibling relationships, and expand it further in the area of adulthood. One specific area that may require more research is analyzing the depth and significance of adult sibling relationships. Rather than simply focusing on what methods are used to communicate and how frequently, it would be beneficial to study the importance and significance of the relationship and how much the relationship has an impact on the day to day life of each sibling. This can be done by studying how much each sibling values the relationship. Another area that does not have very much research is how the number of siblings affects the family dynamic. The majority of the current research has involved studies of sibling pairs rather than a group of three or more siblings. It would be beneficial to study how having more than one sibling affects the relationship. While extensive research in the area of sibling relationships has already been done, there is still much room for new research looking at sibling relationships in adulthood. We can take what is already known about childhood relationships and expand upon it further to see how that relationship is the same or different in adulthood, and what kinds of factors affect the relationship throughout life.

This study seeks to specifically examine the sex and birth order differences in perceptions of the sibling relationship during a specific period of development, emerging adulthood. It is anticipated that one's sex and birth order will affect perceptions of rivalry, closeness, and comparisons to siblings. It is also expected that sex and birth order will affect how often siblings communicate with each other through such means as text messages and phone calls. In addition, it is expected that males and females, and youngest, middle, and oldest children will predict different levels of closeness with their sibling(s) in middle adulthood (around age 50) as well as older adulthood (around age 70).

Method

Participants

The participants in the current study were 14.4% male and 85.6% female students (167 total participants) at a private, four-year college located in the Northeast. Ages of the participants ranged from 18 to 42, with a mean age of 20.08 (SD = 2.23). A majority of the participants were European-American (75.4%), followed by 9.6% Hispanic-American, 3.6% African-American, 3.6% multi-ethnic, 3.0% Asian-American, and 4.8% other ethnicities or not reported. Of all the participants, 22.2% were first year students, 32.3% were sophomores, 27.5% were juniors, 15.0% were seniors, and 3.0% were in at least their fifth year as an undergraduate.

Students who lived in on-campus housing made up 47.3% of the participants, 30.5% lived at home and commuted, and 22.2% lived in off-campus housing. Amounts of siblings that participants had ranged from 1 to 8, with a mean of 1.94. For birth order, 40.1% of participants were the youngest, 14.4% were middle children, and 45.5% were the oldest. A total of 64.7% of participants' parents were married, 20.4% were divorced, 6.0% were widowed, 6.0% were separated, and 2.4% had single parents. Participants were recruited from an online participant pool and received course credit, and all participants needed to have at least one sibling in order to participate.

Materials

Materials used for this study included a demographics form and a questionnaire (created by the researchers) that included items to assess participants' closeness and communication with their siblings. It also asked participants more detailed questions about the sibling relationship, such as whether participants would be friends with their siblings if they were not related, and whether they maintain a relationship with their siblings only out of a sense of obligation to the family.

Demographics form. The demographics recorded were participant age, gender, ethnicity, year in school, residential status, number of siblings, birth order, and parents' marital status.

Sibling relationship questionnaire. The questionnaire included items to assess participants' relationships with their siblings in the past, currently, and predicted relationships for the future. There were also items included to assess sibling rivalry, closeness, communication, relationship maintenance, as well as how parents influence the relationship. Participants were asked to circle the number indicating how much they agree with the item, using a scale from 1 to 7 with 1 being none, not at all, or never, and 7 being a lot, very much so, or extremely.

Design

The current study was a relational study. The variables studied aside from demographic information were sibling closeness, rivalry, communication, relationship maintenance, and parental interference. All participants were given the same questionnaire to complete.

Procedure

Participants signed up for the study online using a participant pool and had to sign an informed consent form before participating. After the consent forms were filed separately, participants were then asked to complete the questionnaire which consisted of a demographics sheet and a sibling questionnaire. After completing the questionnaire, participants were given a debriefing sheet to take with them at the conclusion of the study. All participants completed the study in the same lab room.

Results

A series of 2 (male versus female) X 3 (youngest versus middle versus oldest children) ANOVAs were run on the data. There were no sex or birth order differences in self-reports of rivalry in childhood, adolescence, or currently in the sibling relationship. Also, no sex or birth order differences emerged in self-reports of the participants or their sibling(s) being the "favorite" in the family. In addition, there were no self-reported differences among the sexes or birth orders when participants were asked if they compare themselves to, or their parents compare them with, their sibling(s). No sex or birth order differences emerged in self-reported closeness with parents, how often participants speak with their sibling(s) on the phone or in person, how often participants text their sibling(s), how much participants maintain a relationship with their sibling(s) based solely on a sense of family obligation, and how often parents interfere in the participants' relationship with their sibling(s).

A difference among youngest, middle, and oldest children in emotional closeness to sibling(s) was trending toward significance, F (2, 161) = 2.63,p = .09, with middle children (M = 5.96, SD = 1.33) feeling the closest to sibling(s), followed by oldest (M = 5.42, SD = 1.62), then youngest (M= 5.10, SD = 1.44). There was no sex difference in feelings of emotional closeness to sibling(s).

A difference among youngest, middle, and oldest children in the likelihood to turn to sibling^) during difficult times was trending toward significance, F (2, 161) = 2.56, p = .08, with middle children (M = 6.00, SD = 1.38) being the most likely to turn to their sibling(s), followed by youngest (M= 5.27, SD = 1.84), then oldest (M= 4.80, SD = 2.00). There was no significant sex difference in likelihood to turn to sibling(s) during difficult times.

A 2 (male versus female) X 3 (youngest versus middle versus oldest children) ANOVA revealed a birth order main effect in spending time with sibling(s) outside of family obligations like holiday get-togethers that was trending toward significance (F (2, 161) = 2.94, p = .06), with middle children spending the most time (M= 5.21, SD = 1.67), followed by oldest (M = 4.87, SD = 1.52), then youngest (M = 4.76, SD = 1.64). There was no significant sex difference in time spent with sibling(s) outside of family obligations.

Although there was no significant sex difference in projections of closeness to sibling(s) in middle adulthood, there was a significant main effect of birth order on predictions of closeness around age 50 (F (2, 161) = 6.84, p = .001, partial [[eta].sup.2] = .08). A post

hoc Tukey's test revealed that middle children projected significantly more closeness in middle age (M = 6.50, SD = .72) than youngest children (M = 5.84, SD = 1.12). Oldest children's predictions of closeness in middle age (M = 6.04, SD = 1.08) did not significantly differ from the other two groups.

There was also no significant sex difference in projections of closeness to sibling(s) in older adulthood, but there was a significant main effect of birth order on predictions of closeness around age 70 (F (2, 161) = 10.43, p < .001, partial [[eta].sup.2] = .12). A post hoc Tukey's test revealed that middle children projected significantly more closeness in older adulthood (M = 6.63, SD = .65) than youngest children (M= 5.78, SD = 1.27). Oldest children's predictions of closeness in older adulthood (M = 6.13, SD = 1.05) did not significantly differ from the other two groups.

An ANOVA analyzing how much participants felt they would be friends with their sibling(s) if they were not related revealed a significant main effect of birth order (F (2, 161) = 5.12,p = .01, partial [[eta].sup.2] = .06). Further analysis showed that middle children (M = 5.50, SD = 1.53) were significantly more likely to report that they would be friends with their sibling(s) if they were not related versus younger children (M = 4.33, SD = 1.89). Oldest children (M = 4.49, SD = 1.92) did not significantly differ from the middle and youngest children.

Additional exploratory analyses investigated the effects of various demographic factors on perceptions of the sibling relationship. A one-way ANOVA compared parental marital status on the likelihood to turn to a sibling during difficult times. The results of this test were significant, F (4, 161) = 2.63, p = .04. Participants with married parents were significantly more likely to turn to their siblings during difficult times than those with widowed parents.

An analysis of participants' residential status on feelings of emotional closeness to sibling(s) was trending toward significance, F (2, 164) = 2.49, p = .09. Those living in residence halls reported the most emotional closeness to siblings, followed by those who lived at home, and lastly those who lived in off-campus housing.

A one-way ANOVA that examined the effect of year in school on feelings of current sibling rivalry was significant, F (4, 162) = 3.07, p = .02. Seniors reported significantly less rivalry in their current relationship versus those who have been an undergraduate for more than four years. In addition, sophomores e-mailed with their siblings significantly more than first year students, F (4, 162) = 2.70, p = .03.

Discussion

Although this study did not reveal significant effects of sex or birth order on such sibling relationship factors as rivalry, sibling comparisons, or feelings of parental interference in the sibling relationship, a number of interesting findings did emerge. For example, middle children predicted significantly more closeness with their sibling(s) in both middle and older adulthood versus youngest, with oldest not being significantly different from the other two groups. Middle children were also more likely to feel that they would be friends with their sibling if they were not related. These findings suggest that each birth order needs to be investigated much more in depth, as it appears from these data that middle children have stronger feelings about closeness in the sibling relationship.

A number of demographic factors need further examination as well. While such factors as ethnicity did not produce significant effects, other factors such as parental marital status did, such that emerging adults with married parents looked to their sibling(s) for support during a difficult time significantly more than those with widowed parents. This may be akin to earlier findings that adult siblings in intact families have stronger relationships in adulthood than those from non-intact families (Mack, 2004; Rocca et al., 2010).

In addition, sophomores were more likely to keep in touch with siblings via e-mail versus the first year students in this sample. Perhaps an interview study in the future, or a study that involves both siblings assessing the relationship, can assist with further exploration of these findings. Other means of communication not explored here, such as face time and Skype, should also be incorporated into future studies.

There are a number of strengths and limitations to the current study that should be kept in mind. One strength of this work is that it is an initial step into an understudied developmental stage (emerging adults) of a very understudied relationship (adult siblings). When one reaches middle and older adulthood, often it is only sibling(s) that can offer a unique bond by being the person(s) who was there with an individual from the beginning (Van Volkom, 2006). Spouses, friends, co-workers, and children are not with individuals throughout their entire lifespan. Also, most of the items on the questionnaire were asking about current perceptions, with only a handful asking retrospective (e.g., how much rivalry existed in your relationship as children?) or future-prediction questions (e.g., what do you think your closeness to your siblings will be when you are in middle adulthood?). An additional strength of this study was the interesting findings regarding middle children. Anecdotal evidence and popular press writings would have us believe in "middle child syndrome", but it appears that middle children very much value the bond they have, and hope to continue to have, with their sibling(s) as they enter the later stages of adulthood.

Limitations of this study include missing items that should have been included in the author-designed questionnaire, such as age spacing between siblings. In addition, some of the reported findings were trending toward significance, so further research is needed to see if these findings would reach significance in the future. Finally, the convenience sample was overwhelmingly female and European American, so future research needs to include more males and more ethnic diversity.

Overall, this study has shown that there are no differences between the sexes or between youngest, middle, and oldest children on a number of sibling relationship factors, such as being the family "favorite" or having rivalry in childhood, adolescence, or now. This study, in the end, is very much exploratory, as it is a first step in understanding how emerging adults with siblings perceive this very important relationship.

References

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Cicirelli, V. G. (1989). Feelings of attachment to siblings and well-being in later life. Psychology and Aging, 4, 211-216.

Fortuna, K., Roisman, G. I., Haydon, K. C., Groh, A. M., & Holland, A. S. (2011). Attachment states of mind and the quality of young adults' sibling relationships. Developmental Psychology, 47(5), 1366-1373. doi: 10.1037/a0024393

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Mack, K. Y. (2004). The effects of early parental death on sibling relationships in later life. Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, 49(2), 131-148.

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Michele Van Volkom

Elizabeth Beaudoin

Monmouth University
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Author:Van Volkom, Michele; Beaudoin, Elizabeth
Publication:College Student Journal
Article Type:Report
Date:Sep 1, 2016
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