A new study by a BYU sociologist identifies the specific ways older brothers' antisocial behaviors negatively influence their younger siblings and how parents can intervene to prevent the bad behaviors from being passed on.
The study, published in the new issue of the "Journal of Family Psychology," followed 105 young men at risk for delinquency and their younger siblings for 11 years, using reports from the participants, their parents, teachers and trained observers to compile a comprehensive picture of what was happening within the families. The researchers then used complex statistical modeling to wade through the numerous variables and show which behaviors had the most impact on the younger siblings and which steps parents took or failed to take allowed that impact.
"If my oldest child is struggling and doing things I don't want him to do, that is going to put my younger children at a greater risk for similar bad behaviors," said Bert Burraston, assistant professor of sociology at BYU. "After boiling down all the negative influences delinquent older brothers can have, the two that were most significant were bringing fellow delinquents into the home and sibling conflict – hitting and arguing."
The study found that those two behaviors increased by 25 percent the likelihood the younger siblings would participate with the older brother in antisocial behavior, and, consequently, suffer from poor social adjustment. That's a major impact in an environment when there are so many factors in children's development, Burraston said.
"The more the parents let those two things happen, the worse the outcomes are for the younger siblings," Burraston said. "As a parent, I may be struggling to get my older son to change his life, but I can at least prevent my younger children from following in his footsteps by making sure that they are not hanging out with his friends who could get them in trouble. I must also make sure that my kids aren't fighting with each other and teach them how to resolve conflict."
Burraston, who coauthored the paper with Wichita State's Jim Snyder and the Oregon Social Learning Center's Lew Bank, defined the younger siblings' social adjustment by considering their degree of involvement with bad peer influences, antisocial behavior, substance abuse, sexual activity and traumatic stress, as well as the number of arrests. Statistically, they identified the factors that most influenced that outcome.
Burraston emphasized that the impact of parenting style on the younger siblings was actually centered on the way parents treated the older brothers – allowing them to bring deviant peers into the home and permitting undue sibling conflict.
To deal with an older son's friends, "as a parent I need to supervise my kids, know what they are doing, know where they are and especially who they are with -- what kinds of friends they have," Burraston said.
Fixing the problem of excessive sibling conflict begins with the way parents react when a child throws a tantrum, Burraston said. Caving in teaches that screaming and fighting is a way to get what you want. By the same token, if parents hit and use physical coercion, the child learns that violence is a path to winning. Burraston's research found that the older brothers were passing along this coercive behavior, learned from their parents, to their younger siblings. Another study showed that the more negative interactions the older brothers had with their younger siblings, the worse the brothers' own outcomes were. "This is not only going to have a bad impact on the younger siblings, it also has a really bad impact on the older sibling doing the bullying," Burraston said.
The recommended parenting approach relies instead on "time outs," natural consequences and a removal of privileges, Burraston said.
On a positive note, Burraston pointed out that the study was designed to look at delinquent youth and their siblings, so it was focused on high-risk neighborhoods that not all families have to deal with. And even after growing up in those environments, "the siblings who weren't hanging out with their older brothers and their peers and who were mostly free from sibling conflict are quite well socially adjusted," Burraston said.
On a societal level, Burraston called for more opportunities for parental training to deal with the problems discussed in the research. He pointed to the results of another study he authored in the same issue of the journal. It reported that an intervention program designed to help parents raise their pre-schoolers better also benefited the families' older children.
"Many people go through life with no indication of how to be a parent other than what they saw their own parents doing," Burraston said. "If their parents were not effective, it will be hard for them. So I would like to see more opportunities for parents to get training."