Sibling interactions impact child well-being in Latina/o children

brother and sister on couch looking at tablet computer together

Most children in the U.S. grow up with siblings, yet the role of sibling relations in child development and well-being is relatively understudied, especially among families of color. Researchers at Penn State, Arizona State University, and Harvard are working together to study these dynamics in Latina/o children to better understand the role of siblings’ warmth and negativity in children’s everyday mood.

Anna Hochgraf, doctoral candidate in the department of human development and family studies (HDFS) at Penn State, said she wanted to document the day-to-day quality of sibling relationships and their implications for child well-being.

“How siblings generally get along, such as whether they are kind to each other and how much they fight and tease each other, has implications for child adjustment in the long-term,” she said. “We focused on Latina/o children in the U.S., not only because they are underrepresented in family and developmental research, but also because Latina/o cultural values emphasize the importance of family relationships as sources of support and interdependence. In this study we looked to see if links between siblings’ daily interactions and mood depended on their ties to Latina/o culture.”

The researchers studied 326 Latina/o children from 163 families in the southwestern U.S. The team drew on the expertise of the Social Science Research Institute’s Survey Research Center, whose staff conducted nightly phone interviews with the children from 2018 through 2019. In each of seven nightly phone calls, children reported their days’ sibling experiences and their positive and negative moods.

Hochgraf and colleagues found that children reported more positive moods on days when they also experienced more sibling warmth than they usually did (that is, compared to their experiences on other call days) and less positive moods on days when they experienced more sibling negativity than usual.

“We also found that children with strong Latina/o cultural ties reported less positive moods on days when they experienced more sibling negativity than usual,” said Hochgraf. “In contrast, we were surprised to find that links between daily sibling warmth and mood did not differ based on the strength of children’s ties to Latina/o culture. Enculturation is often protective against adverse experiences; however, these findings suggest that there are certain circumstances in which these ties can increase children’s vulnerability.”

The researchers’ findings also suggest that it may be possible to enhance child psychological well-being with interventions aimed at fostering positive sibling relationships. “Sibling interventions may be especially beneficial for children with strong ties to Latina/o culture,” Hochgraf said.

The work was published recently in the journal Child Development. The research team also included doctoral student Daye Son and Distinguished Professor Kimberly A. Updegraff, both from the School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University; Susan M. McHale, distinguished professor of human development and family studies at Penn State; and Adriana J. Umaña-Taylor, professor of education at Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard University. Updegraff received a doctorate in human development and family studies at Penn State in 1998.

The study was funded by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and by the Cowden Endowment to the School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University.

Anna Hochgraf is an alumna of Penn State's Prevention and Methodology Training (PAMT) program, which trains predoctoral and postdoctoral researchers in the integration of prevention science and statistical methodology for the behavioral sciences and is funded by a T32 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.