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Study looks at challenges for teens in big families

Parents and experts say short-term frustrations give way to long-term benefits

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Study looks at challenges for teens in big families

When things go well at Jill Garner’s house, the place hums like a symphony. On the first day of school, Garner’s oldest son packed lunches, her oldest daughter combed her younger sister’s hair as she ate breakfast, and Garner, a mother of eight, changed diapers.

But life’s not always a symphony. Garner, who grew up in a large family herself, witnessed meltdowns and messy family situations as a child that she says prepared her for adulthood and parenting. “It’s just something we ride through,” she said. “We take deep breaths and say, ‘Okay, are we done? Okay, good. Now, let’s move on with life.’”

A new study says that children, particularly adolescents, in large families may have a tougher time dealing with life’s messiness. Teens with more siblings, the study says, tend to rate their mental health lower than peers with fewer siblings. But the Garners, and others I spoke with, said that any added difficulties caused by growing up in a larger family are only temporary and better prepare adolescents for the future.

According to the paper, published in the Journal of Family Issues in December, researchers analyzed the results of questionnaires given to thousands of eighth graders in China and the United States. The questionnaires asked adolescents to rate how much they agreed with statements like, “I feel good about myself,” “At times I think I am no good at all,” and “I feel I do not have much to be proud of.”

The researchers found it striking that, in both countries, adolescents with the fewest siblings rated their mental wellbeing most positively. In China, those with no siblings reported the most positive views of themselves, and in the United States, those who had no siblings or just one scored similarly. But, in both China and the United States, adolescents with two or more siblings gave themselves lower scores.

Researchers say the concept of resource dilution may explain the result. The idea is simple: brothers and sisters are competitors, vying for parents’ attention and resources, and each additional sibling means everyone gets less.

Tané Ruffin, a Virginia mother of six, said she talked about the study with her 16-year-old and 12-year-old, who both told her that resource dilution happens in their family regularly.

“They said, ‘Yeah, that’s real for us,” Ruffin said. “One said that there are some things that she doesn’t bring up, if she knows that I’ve had a difficult time disciplining a sibling, or something like that. So she’ll say to herself, ‘Now’s not the time for me to talk to Mom about my problem.’”

I asked Ruffin how she thought her children would respond to some of the study’s statements gauging mental health, and Ruffin said her teenagers would probably rate themselves lower than others. But, she argued, the study’s statements were not accurate gauges of mental health. Instead, she said they seemed more like subjective indicators of how much confidence a teenager has in himself.

“Ask my well-adjusted kids on any given day, ‘Do you feel useless today?’ ‘Yes,” she said. “I felt like finding kids who would say yes is like finding hay in a haystack.”

Others I spoke to point out that the study only records a snapshot of a child’s life, a limitation that the study’s researchers acknowledged.

Geremy Keeton, senior director of counseling services at Focus on the Family, told me teenagers who are unhappy in a large family may not realize the blessings and benefits of having siblings until the future. “One study is just that—one study,” he wrote in an email. “It’s information to consider in concert with many other data points of life.”

Keeton said parents with more children may need to be more attuned to the needs of their adolescents, and he said they should consider creative ways to foster connections outside of sibling-and-parent relationships.

Other studies show that children raised with siblings tend to have better social skills than their peers, and are less likely to divorce in adulthood.

Douglas Downey, one of the study’s researchers, said that since his research was limited to adolescents, the long-term effects of siblings on mental health remains “an open question.” Personally speaking, though, he said having siblings was tough early on but paid off in the end.

“I grew up with two older brothers who were a pain in the butt during childhood but now are great friends,” Downey told me in an email. “Fortunately, no one struggled with mental health.”

Juliana Chan Erikson

Juliana is a correspondent covering marriage, family, and sexuality as part of WORLD’s Relations beat. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Juliana resides in the Washington, D.C., metro area with her husband and three children.

Thank you for your careful research and interesting presentations. —Clarke

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