A recent study published in the Journal of Family Issues suggests that having many siblings can pose potential disadvantages for teenagers.
Research based on data collected from eighth grade students found that children who have many siblings appear to have poorer mental health characteristics than their peers from smaller families.
“Parents who have more children may have fewer resources to reduce stress at home compared with parents who have fewer children,” according to the study authors.
What’s more, the researchers found that having an older sibling close in age or having siblings within a year of each other had the strongest association with poor mental health.
“Siblings who are closely spaced compete more vigorously for the resources the target child needs from parents,” the authors write. “Additionally, siblings born within one year of age and older were the only ones associated with lower mental health, whereas younger siblings had no association with mental health.”
The researchers collected data from nearly 19,000 children in the United States and China with an average age of 14 years. They found that children with no siblings in China appeared to have the best mental health across the country, while single children and those with one sibling in the United States had better mental health than subjects with many siblings. .
How does the number of siblings affect mental health?
Simply put, parents who have more than one child certainly have to divide their attention.
“These statements about slightly poor mental health are likely based on a dilution of resources,” explains Jeff Gardere, clinical psychologist and professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. “In other words, the more children in the family, the less attention parents can give to each child, and the fewer financial resources they can expend on the children.”
Samantha Quigneaux, a licensed therapist and national director of family therapy services at Newport Healthcare, says a lack of parental attention can trigger weaknesses such as low self-esteem, insecurity and an inability to form healthy relationships.
“More children mean more competition for parents’ time and attention, and children who experience inconsistent or insufficient attention can develop feelings of neglect that can lead to mental health problems,” he said.
However, according to Quigneaux, the amount of attention each child needs to develop well in the world may vary. This is not completely measurable and cannot be applied from child to child.
How does the close age difference between siblings affect their mental health?
According to the new study, the age gap between siblings also impacts their mental health, and gaps that are too close overall lead to worse outcomes. According to Gardere, the trend is directly related to “carelessness.”
“Because they are closer in age, children may be at similar stages of maturity because we tend to treat them the same way or give them the same resources,” he said. “The reality is that they may be almost the same age, but they have individual needs and, as parents, we tend to miss that. In other words, we do not differentiate between individual or unique needs or perspectives.”
Quigneaux believes that the tendency to compare one another should also be part of a larger conversation, as children, especially teenagers, “experience an increased awareness of others that leads to competition and comparison.”
Siblings who are close in age are likely to share friends and engage in similar activities, both facts which can indirectly force them to compare their lives. That, Quixneaux said, “can cause anxiety and self-esteem issues.”
Are there positive mental health benefits from having siblings?
The short answer is yes. This is just one finding; Research also shows that siblings can also provide benefits in various aspects of our lives.
“Having siblings can contribute positively to a teenager’s mental health by providing emotional support, fostering a sense of friendship, and creating an embedded social network,” Quigneaux said. “Siblings can offer unique insight into each other’s experiences, share a sense of belonging, and provide companionship during both positive and challenging times.”
Gardere notes that the “diluted” love and support provided by parents is directly proportional to the attention provided by siblings.
“It was like being born into a band or an athletic team,” Gardere said. “There is more support not only from parents but especially from siblings.”
Only children may receive more attention from their parents than children with siblings, but the latter group interacts more with their brothers and sisters, who, in a way, fill the void of “diluted” parental attention.
Thomas Barwick via Getty Images
Spending individual time and time together with your teen will help improve his or her mental health.
What can parents do to reduce this?
While the results of this study make sense, it is important to note that parents can try and reduce the negative impact of having to spread their attention across multiple children. This largely involves understanding each child’s individual needs and setting aside time for moments alone.
“To reduce the potential mental health impacts of having multiple siblings, individuals can focus on developing strong communication skills within the family, cultivating individual relationships with each sibling, and seeking support from parents or other trusted adults,” explains Quigneaux. “Setting personal boundaries, and ensuring that each sibling feels heard and understood can contribute to healthier family dynamics.”
Nonetheless, Gardere notes that it’s important to really listen to our kids and ask them about how they’re doing.
“Understand their individual needs and provide them with personalized attention,” he said. “But most importantly take the time to listen to each child individually, sometimes alone, and they will tell you what they want and need from you as their parent.”
Gardere also brings up the school system in relation to family dynamics, recommending consulting with counselors, therapists and even pediatricians about various things, and not being afraid to ask for advice.