Having brothers ‘is not good’ for the mind: study

The mental health of teenagers with more siblings is worse than that of kids with fewer

Far from ‘bond between brothers’, ‘lucky to grow up together’ or ‘being ‘like brother and sister’. Being born into a family with many children would not have anything positive, at least for teenagers, according to a study which, surprisingly, obtained the same results in totally different latitudes and realities such as the United States and China. In fact, research has shown that the mental health of teenagers with more siblings is worse than that of kids with fewer. All more or less ‘aggravated’ depending on the age of the brothers and the difference in years with them.

“The fact that this was found in both countries is surprising,” commented Doug Downey, lead author of the study – published in the ‘Journal of Family Issues’ – and professor of sociology at Ohio State University. “We would never have imagined these results before starting the study, also because – he underlined – other research had shown that having more siblings has various positive effects, so the outcome of the study was not at all obvious”.

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The research was based on data from over 9,400 eighth grade students from the China Education Panel Study, and from over 9,100 American students, from the same school class, from the 1988 Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Kindergarten Cohort. Consistent with policy provisions Chinese only child, approximately one-third of Chinese children are only children (34%), compared to only 12.6% of American children.

In both countries, researchers asked students (average age 14) a series of questions about their mental health. In China, only-child adolescents showed the best mental well-being, a result achieved in the United States by those without siblings or with one sibling. Not only. Going into more detail, it emerged that having older siblings and siblings close in age tended to have worse repercussions on well-being. And those who were worse off were the brothers born within a year of each other.

According to the author of the study, one explanation could lie in what is called ‘resource dilution’. “If you think of parental resources as a cake, having only one child means that this child will receive all the cake, all the attention and care of the parents. But when you add more siblings – explains Downey – each child will receive a portion of that cake, i.e. less resources and attention from parents, and this can have an impact on their mental health.” The fact that close siblings suffer the most negative consequences reinforces this explanation, because children who are nearly the same age will demand, and therefore compete for, the same types of attention from their parents.

Another explanation is that of the so-called ‘economic selectivity’, that is, in each country children from families who had a better socioeconomic situation had the best mental health. And lo and behold, in China, these were children in families with only one child, and in the United States, adolescents with only one or no sibling.

“This combination of results is not yet exhaustive and we still have much to learn about the impact of siblings,” concluded the sociologist. “This is especially important now that the United States and other countries have lower fertility rates. Understanding the consequences of growing up with few or no brothers and sisters becomes an increasingly important social issue.”