24– How your siblings shaped you, with Dr. Shawn Whiteman | Day 110

June 29, 2020 Utah State University Office of Research Episode 24
24– How your siblings shaped you, with Dr. Shawn Whiteman | Day 110
Brothers and sisters everywhere!
Shattering sibiling stereotypes
Unintentionally shaping the trajectories of your family
Siblings managing stress
24– How your siblings shaped you, with Dr. Shawn Whiteman | Day 110
Jun 29, 2020 Episode 24
Utah State University Office of Research

Did you know kids these days are more likely to have a sibling in the household, than a father? Did you know siblings in rural areas tend to build stronger bonds with one another? In this episode, Wyatt sits down with USU researcher Dr. Shawn Whiteman from the department of Human Development and Family Studies to discuss how siblings directly and indirectly act as sources of social influences. From risky behaviors to pushing you to go to school, your older sister may have shaped some of your current behaviors. 

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Did you know kids these days are more likely to have a sibling in the household, than a father? Did you know siblings in rural areas tend to build stronger bonds with one another? In this episode, Wyatt sits down with USU researcher Dr. Shawn Whiteman from the department of Human Development and Family Studies to discuss how siblings directly and indirectly act as sources of social influences. From risky behaviors to pushing you to go to school, your older sister may have shaped some of your current behaviors. 


Wyatt: [00:00:02] This installment of Instead is all about siblings. If you're listening to this from America, there's an 80 percent chance that you have a brother or a sister, and kids these days are more likely to have a sibling in the household than they are to have a father in the household. Yet there's not a lot of research about siblings. So I interviewed Shawn Whiteman, a U.S. researcher who's trying to help correct the shortage of academic research into sibling relationships. And this episode, we talk about perceptions of substance use. Dr. Whiteman talks about how his older sister influenced his education and career. And I talk about my siblings, mainly the one I'm closest to in age and personality. My sister, Shannon, she's great. You're going to hear all about her and sibling relationships and family dynamics in this episode.


Wyatt: [00:00:57] My name is Wyatt and you could be finishing up that five pound block of cheddar you bought when this pandemic started. But you are listening to this instead. Before we jump into the interview, I just want to say that I really appreciate it if you could share this episode with a friend or sibling, personal recommendations are really important to growing the reach of a podcast. And that's what we're trying to do. OK, do you have somebody in mind you're going to share this episode with? Awesome. Here's my conversation with Dr. Shaun Whiteman.




General overview of the field


Dr. Whiteman: [00:01:31] I'm Shaun Whiteman. I am a professor of human development and family studies, as well as the Associate Dean for Research and Animal Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services.


Wyatt: [00:01:42] Awesome. Awesome. And we've talked in the past. And so I know that you researched sibling relationships and that you're kind of on the forefront of this because not a lot of people have done academic research on the relationships between siblings. Can you talk a little bit about the field or the specific ness of sibling relationships?


Dr. Whiteman: [00:02:02] Yeah, research on sibling relationships compared to other close relationships has lagged to be polite or has been neglected to be less polite in the field of developmental psychology as well as family studies or family science.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:02:21] Part of this neglect is likely due to the complexity of studying these dyadic relationships that evolve over time. Other relationships evolve over time as well.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:02:34] But these are children that evolve in adolescence, that evolve into adults all different periods of their life or different with different synchrony at different times so or a synchrony. But to folks like me, it seems odd that we ignore this relationship in which most individuals have over 80 percent of people in the United States have siblings, and with the exclusion of a few countries, China being a chief among them. Other countries in the world have more siblings than people in the United States. And so but even that's a bit of a bit of a misnomer in that there was relaxation of the one child policy in rural areas in China where children were needed to help with the agricultural economy. There was also exceptions made for children, families in which they had a daughter first. Now, this wasn't always common, but it was a patriarchal society. And so there was a strong preference for male children. And when that occurred, sometimes parents were able to. I don't know what the right word is.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:03:46] Negotiate for a second child, I mean, petition to have another child, so there is and very interestingly, a lot of research is now coming out of China on siblings because they weren't there. The policy was just relaxed a few years ago. And  the society is dealing with the implications of having only one child to take care of aging parents, which is a fascinating experiment, a natural experiment in a way in which we had a society in which they were restricted to one child. And now those parents are now elderly, need care, and there's only one person to take care of that.


Wyatt: [00:04:22] So how do you study these sibling relationships?


Dr. Whiteman: [00:04:26] Well, my research is what we would call survey-based research.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:04:29] So largely we would either recruit families to participate in studies that now are conducted online or we would go to the family's homes and, you know, administer a battery of surveys of different types of questionnaires about different topics to the family.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:04:45] So my research expands. I mean, many different modalities of administering surveys. So we've done face to face interviews and administer surveys in family homes.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:04:55] We've done them via telephone. And now we're using, you know, Web based technologies in which families can log on to the Internet, click on a link and start completing a survey on things like Qualtrics or Redcap or Amazon Network for Hardaway's.


Wyatt: [00:05:12] If I was one of the parents that was participating in the survey, what kind of questions? 


Dr. Whiteman: [00:05:22] Yeah, no, we asked, you know, I think it's really important to have both the perspective of the child as well as the parent. In our current research, our parent surveys are focused on their perceptions of their children's qualities or what their kids are like, how they parent the warmth, the conflict, the acceptance they have with their children, the degree to which they treat their children similarly or differently. And again, this is from their perspective. And although societally we have the strong ideal that all kids should be treated equal, they're not. And you'd be surprised the degree to which parents will report where their children are treated differently. And sometimes because of the quality of the children, sometimes the qualities of the parents. We ask the parents about themselves, what do they know about parenting? What are their own personal characteristics? We ask them about their work and family situations. Oh, you know, one line of my work focuses on health risk behaviors. So we ask a lot of questions about substance use and what people's ideas are about substances. And so those are the topics we ask about their economic situation as stress impacts families, especially now during the pandemic, where families may be stressed financially, they may be food insecure. All those things can spill over into their interactions with kids.



Benefits of this study


Wyatt: [00:06:41] What is the goal of this? And maybe there's many goals.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:06:45] And so of this current project you're working on, the goal of this project is to understand and identify the specific ways in which siblings socialize substitutes. We know there's there's a strong link during adolescence between peer substance use and individual child substance. Use of their friends are using substances. They're more likely to use substances themselves. We also know in an emerging body of research that siblings act in a similar way that if your older brother or sister is smoking or drinking or using marijuana, you are much more likely to do so yourself. What's less known is the specific mechanisms by which that influence is transmitted. So is the older siblings influence transmitted through expectations that a younger brother or sisters observes their brother or sister or is told that their brother or sister smokes or uses e-cigarettes and they think that's cool. And so they go out and buy cigarettes themselves? Or is it that their older brother or sister buys them cigarettes and provides them the mechanism, or are they invited to the party in which there is drinking? And so we're trying to do is figure out the ways in which or the mechanisms by which siblings influence each other in this health risk domain. And then we can identify prevention and intervention strategies to help mitigate that.


Wyatt: [00:08:07] Yeah. Have you noticed any trends within the sibling relationships in your research yet that you can talk about?


Dr. Whiteman: [00:08:15] Well, the first wave of data was being collected. And as we're speaking, I'm not literally at this moment, but having a communication with my graduate student about some analysis that we're doing.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:08:27] What we're finding is consistent with previous research that there is an effect of siblings above and beyond peers and greater than parents. It's another domain of people often think about as the parent drinks, the kids more likely to drink. What we find is that peers and siblings are much more influential. Or tangential to that, adolescents live in terms of their own behavior or their substance use behavior at least, and the degree to which a sibling communicates with their brother or sister about drugs and alcohol seems to be influential. So, there is this passive pathway through expectations. So, a brother or sister can shape the younger child's expectations, which in turn would shape the behavior later on. And so that's some of our initial work. We literally just finished Wave one in April and are just getting those analyses off the ground or beginning this one paper here. But we'll have a lot more to say in the coming months, including a special assessment we did during the covid pandemic to see how sibling relationships changed when they were forced to be together for upwards of three months.


Wyatt: [00:09:36] Yeah, yeah. So I'm the youngest of five. So, like, I don't know, in a national view, a very large family. Are you kind of trying to stick to smaller families of just maybe like two siblings to keep it simple? Or are you just willing to take anybody who's filling out surveys?


Dr. Whiteman: [00:09:56] No, that's a great question. And I think this is one of the complexities of sibling relationships is that they come in multiple shapes, forms, distances between each other, birth orders. And in our study, we focus on two consecutively born children so they don't have to be first or second. They could be fourth and fifth within a specific age range. So we're interested in studying sibling relationships and sibling influence from early to late adolescence. So we're trying to get kids, older siblings who are in ninth and tenth grade ideally, and then younger siblings who are within four years of age. So anywhere from fifth grade to I mean, it could be in the same grade as twins, but one or two years below. And what we want to do, we're studying this over the course of three years. So basically, as the older sibling transitions through high school, so they go from middle adolescence to late adolescence, the younger siblings can also transition either from early to mid-adolescence or mid adolescence to late adolescence themselves. And so we focus on those two kids. We have indications of who's in the home and how many siblings the other siblings there are. But the the complication becomes with the great variation in ages and structures that we find in families. Sometimes one research strategy doesn't work across families. So we took your family, for example, that had five kids. And I'll guess that your older brother or sister is at least ten years older than you or your older brother.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:11:17] Sister oldest is like we're exactly ten years apart and kids are normally about two years apart in age. And so that's fairly normative. You know, I could go in and ask them survey questions when they were 16, but you would be six. I couldn't hand you a survey and say, oh, please fill this out. We would have to do a whole other type of of data collection effort with you and which we would have to do interviews and structured things.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:11:44] And then I go to your neighbor's house. And if I was going to interview that family, they could have a 16-year-old, a 14 year old and a three year old. And again, the methods have to change across these families. So that becomes the complication of sibling relationships is that they're not one size fits all. There's different age spacing between them, which means the kids have different cognitive capacities in the ways that we do.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:12:06] Our research will differ as well, depending on those kids ages.



Sibling Stereotypes



Wyatt: [00:12:11] Yeah, so there's a lot of like, oh, you're the youngest, so you meet these stereotypes and you're the oldest and you meet these stereotypes. And I do think I get along better with, like, the youngest child, because I guess you know what it's like to be like the last one on the totem pole and always wondering if you belong or if you were just, like, invited because they had to invite you to that thing. Can you speak from like a research perspective on the stereotypes we have about birth order?


Dr. Whiteman: [00:12:35] Yeah, I can say that most research on birth order does not support the popular conceptions about the birth order dynamics or birth order being something causally related to different personality characteristics. There are some historical analyses that suggest that younger children there's a famous book called Born to Rebel that younger children are more likely to rebel and those older children are more likely to be more conservative and follow societal norms a little bit more strongly. That was based on historical research.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:13:08] Empirical research is less consistent on that fact. And so, you know, there isn't a lot of evidence besides popular cultural pop psychology on birth order. But it is fascinating because it becomes something that always comes into the coursework. Whenever we're talking about sibling relationships, it's always something that comes up. So it's pervasive in our our society. The idea that, you know, where my ordinals, my ordinal order or my ordinal position within the family is going to be related to who I am and what I do. And it's going to be related to opportunities you had for sure. But it may not be causally related that everybody who's. The middle child is going to act this way, everybody is the first one is going to be conservative and high achieving. And so there is some research, one of the more fascinating areas where there is some support, which is, you know, maybe perhaps troubling to me as a as a second born as well, is that older children tend to have higher IQ. Now, when I say this, the difference is like a point or two on an IQ scale. So in reality, it's not it's trivial, but it's statistically significant. And so it is a difference that we observe that's greater than chance, probability of it occurring again. There's variation in this across families. But on aggregate, the research that was published in the journal Science, which is one of the best journals in the world, shows that in controlling for many confounding factors that there is this small but significant difference in IQ.


Wyatt: [00:14:37] Do you think that it controls for the factor of me being like nobody cares how I do on this test, so I'm not going to, like, put all my heart and soul into it?


[00:14:46] For I think the greater explanation is that the oldest child had both individual time alone with the parents, with no other child is afforded except for the last four.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:14:59] And perhaps if people transition out and also the older child teaches, you know, as someone who went to college and went to grad school and then was hired as a professor eventually, who didn't have a lot of formal instruction on how to teach and things, you really learn a topic when you have to teach it. And so that older brother or sister are likely providing scaffolding and instruction to their younger siblings about a variety of topics, likely get some benefit from it as well. It's not just helping their brother or sister with their math homework or helping them learn how to tie their shoe or whatever it is. There's actually some cognitive gain that comes from that benefits them personally. And that's the most logical explanation.


Wyatt: [00:15:41] Yeah. So when my oldest sister Carla complains about having to give to drive me around when I was little, I said, well, you have to teach people. And that made you smarter and better and people around.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:15:50] And now you can tell her she's a better driver because of it. Yeah, yeah.


Wyatt: [00:15:55] I think me and her have like the best driving records in the family, like wreck wise, so.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:16:00] Yeah, yeah. So I don't know, I guess nobody, talks about it. Yeah. And nobody gets upset about sharing compliments. Yeah. Yeah.


Whiteman background



Wyatt: [00:16:09] So how has your research been influenced by your siblings or do you think your research career has been influenced by having a sibling.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:16:20] It's a great question. So I have an older sister whose experiences that I observed certainly shaped the trajectory of my academic career.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:16:30] Not purposely, but one of the examples is my sister and I are twenty two months apart in age, but we were always one grade apart.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:16:39] So just the way our first our birthdays fell around the school cut offs. And so we were both similarly academically adept. And I will admit I didn't work real hard in high school. And my sister went to college when I was a senior in high school.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:16:55] And, you know, she came back from that year and was not invited back for her second year.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:17:02] And that created a lot of family strife. And my parents have been divorced for a long time. And whenever we with either parent, it was very stressful and complex situation. And my you know, my read of the situation at the time, which may have been naive, was that, you know, college must be really hard. Here's my sister, who's very bright and capable and didn't do so well. And so I went to college and I met for the first time of my life. I really studied and prepped and I did very well. And all of a sudden, you know, professors are telling me I should go to graduate school, which I didn't know was an option. And I went to a master's program in psychology at Wake Forest University and was paired up with a developmental psychologist as my advisor. And she gave me a list of topics of things that she was interested in exploring and whether I was interested. And one of the topics that she was an expert in was parenting after divorce. And here I was from a divorced family and had some experiences, at least with that personally. And it's all sibling relationships.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:18:02] So I started digging into the literature and said, this is a really scant literature. There's not much research. I mean, again, divorce a huge topic in our society and lots of of worry about what's the impact of divorce on kids development when parents do you know, to dissolve the relationships. And I was like, this is all that's there. There's a handful of studies and large studies, good studies, but not much. And then I went beyond the divorce literature and started looking at sibling relationships in general and said, wow, there's not very much here, at least compared to others other areas. I mean, there's lots on parenting after divorce. There's lots on parenting children. There's lots on peer.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:18:45] relationships, why isn't there much on sibling relationships and so the indirect pathway through which my sister influenced me was my observation of her experience in college and in turn how that impacted my behavior when I first went to college. And it put me on a track that, you know, that put me in a place I never knew I would be and I didn't. When I went to college, I was going to be a radio DJ and, you know, transition to psychology fairly quickly after an instructor told me, if you want to be a radio deejay, you should drop out right now.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:19:19] Ok, I think a lot of stay in college a little while and in a different route.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:19:24] And so options that I didn't know were alternatives for me became available and pursued it. And so indirectly, directly but indirectly, she influenced my academic career after which put me into a place where I, you know, found an area of research that I loved and still pursued 20 some years later.


Wyatt: [00:19:47] Yeah. So you had an older sister, like from your research, have you noticed a difference in the genders of the siblings, like older brother, younger sister, older sister, younger brother, two brothers, two sisters?


Dr. Whiteman: [00:20:02] It was a really great question. And it is something we do observe that there are different dynamics to depending on the gender composition of the sibling diad, older sister, younger sister dyads tend to be more intimate, more expressive, share their feelings. Now, some of this may be related to our gender dynamics in general. They tend to be warmer over the time. Brother doesn't tend to be more conflictual. There tends to be more physicality in those relationships.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:20:32] And so we see that mixed gender dads tend to have less intimacy, at least during adolescence, than the same gender dyad.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:20:41] Perhaps that's reflecting developmental differences between boys and girls during this period. But we do see that that evolves over time. They become closer as they get closer to the end of adolescence. As my and you know, that's not that's not going up here on the podcast. But when I'm drawing the trajectories of my hands. So we do see differences as a function of gender composition. When we talk about sibling influence, one of the areas I'm interested in, one of the areas or one of the theories that has big support is that sibling influence dynamics should be stronger and same gender dyads. That an older sister to a younger sister is a more salient model for behavior than an older brother may be. Similarly, a younger brother looking at an older brother that again, that model would be one that they may be more likely to imitate because of the sameness and gender of the sameness and expectations societally regarding their genders.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:21:34] But one of the paper that we have under review, one of the things I find most fascinating of any of the research, in all honesty that I've done over the last twenty two years is that we found in a study that it's not gender composition that matters as much, it's pubertal difference in that.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:21:53] So puberty occurs at a generally a similar time for all individuals on average, but there's great variation in that. And so if we think and we know that females mature earlier than males on average.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:22:07] And so if you have an older brother, younger sister, diad who's about two years apart in age and we followed normative pubertal trends, there is a period in which they are maturation only equal despite being chronologically different. And we found that when those maturation or differences are narrow, that they are more developmentally equal in terms of their physical development. Sibling influence is stronger. So when they are more equal, they are more likely to be engaging in the similar and at least in similar activities.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:22:46] And we're talking about risky activities. And again, there's a variety of reasons for that. But one of the big explanations is that that if we take the older brother, younger sister is that younger sister is now involved in a peer group with older individuals, including that older brother's friends. And all of the sudden they are viewed as maturation and equal, not somebody little sister anymore or, you know, and invited to activities. And we know that people who mature earlier puberty are invited to more adult like activities sooner and things of that nature. So I think it's fascinating that age matters and gender matters. But actually, physical maturation during adolescence also matters. Now, there becomes a point where both of them become adults and physical maturation is the same for both of them. But during adolescence is a dynamic time, which they're both maturing emotionally, cognitively and physically. And when that difference narrows, they are more likely to be similar, at least the results for this one paper.


Family dynamics of survey respondents 


Wyatt: [00:23:45] That's currently under review, and then what about like I'm just assuming that you're taking income data about the families you're interviewing, have you seen any information about, like the financial circumstances impacting that in our study?


Dr. Whiteman: [00:23:59] We haven't explored that yet in previous work. What can be said is it's a two sided issue, is that stress income related stress can spill over into other dynamics and so that can make relationships more tense. And so, not surprisingly, if you're tense, you blow up sooner. And so both parenting and relationships can be more volatile in those environments. There is research and I'm taking a different direction on rural youth that may get at what you're thinking.


Wyatt: [00:24:34] Oh, I'm from like rural place. So excited for this direction in terms of rural use, less income based.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:24:42] But, you know, there is lots of poverty within rurality. Rural youth may socialize more intensely with their brothers and sisters because of the lack of peers in the immediate environment.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:24:51] Not that they don't have friends and stuff, but they're not as accessible as maybe in a more densely populated environment like hanging out with a friend growing up was like maybe once a week, you know, just because it was like like you had my mom had a pit go and pick them up and then, like, bring them back to my house and then like five hours later go and drop them off, like with the whole chore versus like, sorry, I'm just really jealous of people who could just run over to their friends that or ride their bikes or.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:25:18] Yeah. Know. And so there is there is some research on inWorld siblings. And one of the big studies was this professor named Jean Brodie at the University of Georgia that was studying rural African-American siblings for a long time and followed them. And these notions that siblings may be more influential in those contexts, in rural context, because there's less peers around, was supported in a number of his studies that actually in the study that we have, one of our aims is to study the impact of context in terms of the residential context on sibling relationships and sibling influence. And we have the hypothesis that, again, sibling influence on substance use will actually be stronger among those who live in rural environments because they don't have a strong of a peer environment to rely on. And so that's one of the things we're studying. We have another paper again, this is under review with the graduate student Jenna Castanet, who works here at Utah State with me and studying using a national data set, National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health that shows this effect that sibling influence is stronger on marijuana use, on adolescents, marijuana use in rural contexts. And again, we attribute that to the more intense socialization and perhaps the less frequent availability of peers and peer contexts.


Wyatt: [00:26:43] So in the instances in which the younger sibling didn't quite follow in the older siblings footsteps when it comes to substance abuse matters, because maybe I'm an example of that, I don't know. Did you find any reasoning for that?


Dr. Whiteman: [00:26:57] So you make a great point. And so I keep talking about siblings being similar and my actual initial forays into research were about siblings being different, and we have just as many reasons to be different as we do to be similar. We have motivations to want to be uniquely identified by our environment that I'm not my brother or sister and I'm different. And there's both psychological processes that should want to promote that as well as behavioral. You know, we act differently. We may not one day be introverted, one may be extroverted, and we may react to that, that the fact that they're extroverted may make me just want to be quiet more often.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:27:33] And so one of the things that we find is that similarity is the dominant trend that they are siblings are more likely to be similar than different in our research. So when we the ways that we look at research and this may be a function of the paradigms that we use, that when when I look at older siblings behavior, predicting younger siblings behavior, that tends to be a positive correlation. There tends to be a positive correlation between parents behaviors and kids as well. One of the big areas of study, and there's multiple areas that can demonstrate this is children of alcoholics, children of alcoholics are more likely to become alcoholics themselves. Yet maybe, as you indicated, there is a large number of children of alcoholics that never touch alcohol in their lives.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:28:19] But there's still a positive correlation, which means on average, more people are becoming similar than different.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:28:25] What we try to do is use different techniques rather than using what we call variable oriented analyses where we just, you know, I correlate your behavior with your siblings.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:28:35] And just on average, across the six hundred families that I collect data on, this is the pattern. We try to use some what we call pattern oriented techniques that separate out people based on the patterning of their behavior. And we can identify when we do techniques like this, we can identify those siblings who look similar and those who look different. And then we can say, OK, when we take these different groups of individuals, these are different groups of siblings. What are their relationships like? Are they similar or different? Are they endorsing more conflict or are they endorsing more intimacy or other critical domains, or are they comparing themselves more or less to each other? And in this study, we can't tell you where we're at, but on the on a body of studies I've done to this point, theory suggests that siblings should be different to protect themselves from rivalry and conflict. So the psychological theory is, I'm going to differentiate from my sibling because I see him or her as a model for behavior and they got to pick that. They're going to be a great athlete or they are a great athlete and I'm going to go into the arts to distinguish myself. And that differentiation should reduce conflict and rivalry because we're both stars and our own domain or whatever it is.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:29:49] And as a result, we should have a more harmonious relationship, and everything should be better and inconsistent with the theory.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:29:58] We find the opposite. We find that people that are more different have more arguments similarly that are more different, have more arguments. They often express less intimacy. They do express less rivalry. And that may be consistent, but and less jealousy. But we see more conflict and less intimacy. And that's the reverse of the harmony. And so it may be that we elect to be different from people that we don't get along with as opposed to we elect to to be different in order to get along with them better.



Wyatt talks about sister


Wyatt: [00:30:32] I'm a little lost in this because I'm busy thinking about my own. But the sister just older than me, Shannon, who is definitely like the sibling I am closest to now. And we solve problems in similar ways and we like have similar values when it comes to like the way we approach life. But like when she was I am three grades younger than her and when she was in high school, she partied a little bit and she dated like the bad boy in town who she's now married to and is like a great in-law. And that caused a lot of, like, drama in the family. And so I kind of thought I was like, oh, it's my job to be the good kid who's not a problem. And so, like, I can see myself not following in her footsteps to avoid conflict. But it was more like a family level than in relationship to her.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:31:27] Yeah. And I think I mean, you bring up an important point is not just focused on the one individual, but the family and parents have an input on all of this as well. And I want to go back to one point, and that is differentiation dynamics are supposed to occur more strongly between those more closely in age. So you and you said her name was Shannon. Yeah.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:31:52] You know, because you're ordinarily adjacent to each other, you're born consecutively. That dynamic should be stronger than for you and someone that was born ahead of her. Yeah, but she would be worried about the one above her.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:32:05] And so those dynamics matter as well as who? Who are you comparing yourself to? Who's around? But parents have a big influence on this as well. We often ignore that aspect even as a sibling researcher in terms of, you know, I'm very much focused on the siblings and their own agency. But parents push people into activities. They push people into different domains. And so their guidance or their shepherding also has impact. And, you know, if you have a parent who wants everybody to play soccer, well, guess what? Everybody's probably gonna play soccer, at least for a little while. And so that creates similarities. I play football in middle school, so I was like, no, I'm not Phillip, Charlie. And so there is that that shepherding and some of it's due to the parents own interests, some of it as a parent of two children who were twenty seven months apart, as is about coordinating schedules, it's like it's great if they could be in the same activity.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:33:04] And I'm not I'm not chauffeuring them from multiple places at different times and so that they both can be in the same place at the same time that that creates efficiency on a parent standpoint.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:33:15] So parents do have a role in shaping what activities and behaviors their kids engage in and ultimately shaping, you know, what they become interested in and who they become.


Wyatt: [00:33:25] Yeah, yeah, yeah. And also, like like pretty sure my dad had ADD and my mom has ADD because like me, my sister and one of my brothers have all been diagnosed because like everybody in my family's got ADD. So it's just like probably not like the standard group to benchmark things off of.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:33:45] No, but you also, I mean, highlights a genetic component to relationships.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:33:49] And they're all and we share on average, 50 percent of our genetic makeup with a fraternal or a biological sibling, what we consider a typical sibling and the relationship on siblings. You can use what we call genetically informed designs, where we compare monozygotic twins who are clones of one another genetically and born at the same time, dizygotic twins who are no different genetically than typical siblings, but have this interesting thing as they were born at the same time. And so they're treated more equally because they're always the same age. Typical siblings, which we are born on average in this country two to three years apart, share 50 50 percent of their genetic make up.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:34:31] Half siblings share twenty five percent of their genetic make up share one parent and then step siblings and adopted siblings who are genetically unrelated. But they live together. And as scientists, we can use that genetic cascade in behavioral genetic studies to help us learn which behaviors may be more influenced by genetics or environment. And not surprisingly, it's a combination of both for just about every Daviau, but both nature and nurture matter. It's not either or. It's nature by nurture, but that we can use siblings in very innovative ways scientifically to learn about genetics and learn about is a certain psychiatric condition pervasive in a family? Is alcohol use because of genetic propensity towards stimulation in the brain and, you know, transmitted genetically as well as socially.




Whiteman talks about families with substance abuse


Wyatt: [00:35:27] So you're studying substance abuse issues in families. What kind of advice or interventions would you give to parents or are you working on?


Dr. Whiteman: [00:35:39] That's what the ultimate goal is right now. We're trying to identify the ways in which brothers and sisters socialize these behaviors so we can provide concrete steps. I think right now one of the bigger Take-Home points is, is telling that brother or sister that they are a model, letting them know that on average, the younger brothers and sisters are going to be engaged in many of the behaviors that you engage in. And if you care about their health and well-being, you may want to delay their entry into some of these behaviors. We know that earlier entry into substance use behaviors is related to a greater likelihood of substance use disorders later in life. So if you start drinking when you're 12, you're much more likely to become an alcoholic than if you if you start experimenting when you're 17 or 18. Many of these behaviors are normative, that it's not unusual for adolescents to begin exploring these substances, especially we have ones that are legal when you're twenty one. And so it's not atypical for youth to engage in this. But the later that they do is generally related to less problematic behaviors in adulthood and as well as during adolescence. The earlier they engage adolescents, the more trouble they're likely to get into.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:36:52] So that's one area that we would do we. We want to talk about sibling, ultimately sibling targeted designs in which we can really intervene on the sibling relationship. There are some intervention studies out there today trying to improve sibling relationships, which directly or indirectly would make you less likely to engage in risky behaviors. We want to take that and tailor it to specific scenarios. One of the great things about sibling relationships is they are an area in which parents don't take offense to which to potential intervention. If I say to a parent, I would like to help you have your kids get along better, parents be like, great, that sounds wonderful. And if I go to a parent, I'd like to help you parent better. There may be more judgmental or I'm thinking I'm making a judgment about the quality of their parenting. And so siblings offer us as an entree into families that is nonjudgmental. Whether it should be or not is another question. But as a society, you know, we're OK with the idea that siblings fight and siblings don't get along. And I think most most parents would be welcoming of advice and, you know, intervention programs or prevention programs to help improve the quality of that relationship.


Siblings reactions to stress



Wyatt: [00:38:09] Have you noticed any differences in the quality of the sibling relationships and families that are like in the midst of stressful events or just live more stressful lives?


Dr. Whiteman: [00:38:21] There's a great question. And so there's two answers. One is one that I gave similarly earlier in that stress tends to permeate multiple relationships and it spills over and it makes things more difficult. And so that stress can be marital stress, that stress could be economic stress, and that spills over into all of our relationships. And on average, again, the big the big finding, if you average across individuals, is that you see more difficulty that the relationships become more strained. There's more problems, however, under extreme circumstances, there is some research of this idea of sibling comp.. So research by Jenny Jenkins demonstrated this in Toronto, in which family is under severe economic stress and another study of marital extreme marital discord and gone extreme. So we're talking about not just normative, but more on that on the extreme end. And this research suggests that in some of these extreme circumstances that siblings bind together, they come together more closely. They compensate for the deficits that they are experiencing in other domains, whether it's parenting, whether it's availability.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:39:33] Another area this has been demonstrated is when a parent is either extreme substance abuse or that they're emotionally and physically unavailable because they're a drug or substance use addict as well as some a little bit of research on parents who are incapacitated because of medical issues.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:39:50] And in those situations, some of these really extreme situations, the siblings come together and compensate for the lack of qualities that they're getting in another relationship or that they would expect in other relationships.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:40:04] Overall, that's a smaller proportion. It's almost like the sibling differentiation idea is when we when we study it as a whole, we just look at the entire population. We see evidence of these modest, positive correlation. So stress is related to more conflict. But if we look at some of these extremes or we separate out the individuals who are functioning a little differently, we see that compensation does occur in a small percentage of families or a smaller percentage of families.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:40:30] And in those in those situations, sibling is an incredible resource.


Wyatt talks about his family



Wyatt: [00:40:34] And, you know, in that individual's life and their adjustment, based on my experiences, I can see that siblings compensating it really depends on the nature and the acknowledgement of those stresses, because growing up, like my dad had some health problems and also because of those problems developed an opiate addiction that we never like we were aware of, but we didn't acknowledge. And so it's not something you can compensate if you're busy trying to ignore, you know. And so, like I mean, my sister had a fine relationship, but then after he ultimately committed suicide, we were like really like reconciling like our paths together. Like she became like we were already close. But that's when we grew much closer. You know, we experienced the same thing together and we could bond on that because we're the youngest two. So we had a more similar experience in that regard. So I don't know that ties in. Right. That connects.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:41:34] Yeah, I think. Yeah. Yes. Your experiences together, you know, shape your relationship.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:41:41] One of the big things that that you that your personal story touches on is that transitions these big family transitions in life. They can be marriages. They can be divorces. They can be.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:41:56] Deaths, there could be births, these big transition points are often when our relationships reorganize, is that we tend to go along the status quo for a long time until something challenges that. And this is family systems theory suggests that we operate at a period of equilibrium, whether it's good or bad. And until something happens that challenges that system and makes us reorganize. And so in your example, your father's passing may have presented an opportunity for you and your sister to reconnect or connect in a different way and allow your relationship to transform, which it may not have done without some kind of major event occurring. So that's another thing that we see across the life course, especially as we move into adulthood. Sibling relationships tend to, in early adulthood, tend to become a little bit more distel. We focus on our own relationships with our romantic partners, our significant others. We become of research on young adulthood, successes of very self-focused period of time where we're very much interested in what we're doing and my siblings are all married.


Wyatt: [00:42:55] Get mad at me because I'm being selfish about stuff and I'm like, like you're being like just because you're selfish about you and your spouse and your family, like like in the grand scheme of things, like you're being just a selfish. There are other people involved.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:43:08] Yeah, but how how we focus, you know, it does change. And one of the things that I study sibling relationships during adolescence because they still live together by and large and, you know, is a period in which they have close proximity and strong interactions. And it's a different but when we are young adulthood perhaps leave our family homes and, you know, start our own lives. Developmental research suggests those relationships become a little bit more distant. But we come back later in life after we have kids and after, you know, we're focused on ourselves. You know, you're your you're likely you're only, you know, familial bond as your siblings at that point and your parents passed away and your aunts and uncles likely passed away. And, you know, your siblings are the people you reconnect with for this filial bond. You know, and you reminisce about stories of remember when we were child children 70 years ago and we did this. And so it's this very interesting lifelong bond longer than any other relationship will ever have. For most people, it's the longest lasting relationship you have. And for twins, it's literally womb to tomb. And it's just fascinating. And, you know, and some research I this is my research, but it just kills me that parents. So we're talking about people in late life, people in their 60s, 70s and 80s still care about how they were treated differently by their parents, and that still resonates with them.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:44:38] In their late years, and as it has implications for how they get along with their brother or sister and actually it also has implications for their overall well-being. And so these are really fascinating relationships that are really important to us for a variety of reasons.


Family Systems Theory



Wyatt: [00:44:53] Yeah, yeah. I want to step back a little bit to family systems theory. I know I'm not in one of your classes, but that's something I would like to learn a little more about to go into a little more depth.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:45:07] Yeah, I mean, family systems theory is really interesting as it was born out of general systems theory, which is this idea of how systems interact. And it was used in fields like physics, and it was translated into a family systems perspective by some scientists in the 60s and 70s and gain traction. And the idea that families are composed of multiple subsystems. So you have the marital diat or the parenting diad. So moms and dads who have parents and children, it's another diad. You have siblings, there's another diet. And you can think of these as three concentric circles that form a Venn diagram that interact. And each of these subsystems interacts and interactions within the subsystem affects the other subsystems, which affects the family as a whole. And there's a lot of concepts within family systems theory and what one of the big ones is, what happens in one area will influence what happens in another. And so one of my favorite pieces of research, our findings is that the topic that parents and children fight about the most, at least according to a few studies, is that their relationship with their sibling, so they're fighting about them, fighting about with their brother or sister. So parents and kids are fighting in the mood. The topic they fight about the most is why can't you get along with your brother or sister, which means they're fighting and it just becomes this circular pattern of conflict within the family that it exacerbates tensions. And so family systems suggest this mutually interactive and influential subsystems. And as we talked about earlier, a stress parenting diet or a stress marriage has implications for how well a parent, how well their kids get along.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:46:45] And we learn how to interact with each other by observing our adults and peers in our lives.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:46:52] And, you know, so parents are fighting. Kids learn.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:46:55] One way to interact is through fighting and sow discord in the parenting relationship or discord, marital discord and parenting.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:47:03] Which discord, excuse me, and sibling relationships.


Wyatt: [00:47:09] And it's the idea that what goes on spills over into other DIAT because of the culture we live in, like we learn that fighting is bad, but also not fighting can be bad. Um, I'm just thinking about my own family at the moment. But, uh, what what what is the function of fighting within a family?


Dr. Whiteman: [00:47:33] There's in a similar context, there's actually positives and negatives and so research on siblings in early childhood.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:47:39] So when we're young or toddlers, we're in early elementary school suggest that fighting with a sibling is developmentally a positive and that we learn how to resolve conflicts in the context of this relationship that's non volitional, that the person won't abandon you because you're fighting and you have the ability to learn how to negotiate and persuade and compromise and apologize.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:48:05] And so in one context, fighting is really a positive that you're learning how to interact with others in a relationship in which there is no threat of a dissolving. And so the same way you would fight, you don't fight with peers the same way you fight with a sibling during adolescence, because if the relationship is not worth it, like, why am I going to be in a relationship where we fight? That's just as similarly for a romantic relationship. When the the negatives outweigh the positives, people abandon the relationship. Siblings aren't like that. They're non volitional. They'll be your brother and sister unless they emancipate themselves from the family. They'll be a brother or sister forever. And so in one way, it's really good. Another way it's really bad and conflict that we think about. One of the examples I often teach is so we talk about relationship, conflict, physical conflict and abuse within families. And physical violence between romantic partners societally is not tolerated. And it's looked upon purely physical relationship between a parent and child, even more so now than it used to be looked upon poorly. We know that there's not great outcomes for spanking and physical. Physical confrontation between a parent and child is not related to positive outcomes. Yet physical violence between siblings is accepted. And something like 60 percent of siblings have experienced what would be considered a physical assault by law and relationships. And when I bring that up, people laugh in class. And it becomes normative that physical violence within sibling relationships is normative, it becomes typical. That's why we allow it. And there's plenty of reason now to suggest that we shouldn't, that physical violence and sibling relationships is related to the same negative outcomes as is peer bullying, independent of peer bullying above and beyond.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:50:19] And so, you know, as a society, we may want to reapproach how we think conflict and sibling relationships should occur.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:50:29] Now, fighting, disagreeing, coming to compromise is actually probably developmentally related to positive things. In the long run, however, that that conflict, turning violent or turning physical is not. And, you know, we should probably attend to that and not say, oh, that's boys being boys or siblings being siblings, brothers and sisters. It's it shouldn't be something that we accept because it's not related to positive outcomes for youth.


Future projects


Wyatt: [00:50:58] Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So you're still kind of in the middle of this research project studying substance abuse, uh, perceptions among siblings. Um, what do you have ideas of what you want to study next 


Dr. Whiteman: [00:51:15] Yeah, one of the really interesting questions to me is what happens when siblings no longer reside in the same home and so normatively an older sibling transitions out of the same out of the family home earlier than a younger sibling because they're older, whether that's a transition towards college with that as a transition towards the military, whether that's a transition towards their own employment post high school. And there's a lot of question as to, well, your siblings matter, then what a brother or sister engages in a behavior, have implications for their younger brother or sister, and we don't know a lot. And so one of the things that I would love to study and I hope the federal government will agree, is allow us to continue the study into subsequent years to study how sibling influence may be transmitted when they are no longer residing together.


Dr. Whiteman: [00:52:06] And there's a variety of ways in which civilians can still communicate, can transmit their ideas, talk to each other, we have we actually have a handful of studies now that show us that even though they're presidentially no longer living together or they're no longer the same residents, sibling influence is still occurring and it occurs at a rate greater than parental influence. And that includes risky behaviors such as risky sexual engagement, substance use and deviancy and delinquent type of behaviors, as well as some positive domains. The graduate student worked with here, Janosch. She has a paper showing that, you know, your brother or sisters, you know, adult status, some of the things they obtained is or is related to your positive adult status, too. And so and so I tend to focus on the negative. There are plenty of positives in these relationships as well. So that's really one of the things I want to talk about is we would expect that the mechanisms by which siblings influence each other may change. It may be because they talk to each other and disclose what they're doing and not because they're sharing in that engagement anymore. And maybe because a brother or sister posts on Instagram that binge drinking on a college campus that influences their younger brothers, sisters behaviors as opposed to, you know, them talking about it or you know them directly observing in the home or something of that nature. So I'm really fascinated about that transition to adulthood, where we also say we also know normatively sibling relationships become more distant, as we described earlier. And so that's one area I'd like to move into next. And then the other big area is is translating some of these findings to intervention and prevention type programs to help mitigate youth substance abuse or at least, you know, preventing it may be a bigger task is as it is a normative problem. But delaying is the word I'm looking for, delaying it until later when these behaviors may be safer and less related to negative life lifetime outcomes.

Brothers and sisters everywhere!
Shattering sibiling stereotypes
Unintentionally shaping the trajectories of your family
Siblings managing stress