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Study finds link between quality of sibling relationships and loneliness, depression

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Some of our longest-lived relationships are with our siblings. And research shows our ties with sisters and brothers can be much more impactful than we realize, especially as we age. As part of our series on the Science of Siblings, NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So siblings - it can take us back to childhood, memories of fights, competition. How much do these relationships change over time?

AUBREY: Well, as kids and teenagers, these relationships can be pretty rocky, which is normal. I mean, under one roof, there can be competing personalities that bring on dynamics, both good and bad, and sibling rivalries. But what the research shows, Leila, is that as we become adults, there tends to be a turning point. Megan Gilligan of the University of Missouri and collaborators have been studying big groups of siblings over several decades.

MEGAN GILLIGAN: The relationship seems to be the most intense in terms of both conflict and warmth in adolescence. But yeah, 23 - we were able to note it was a turning point when the relationships kind of shifted in terms of more emotionally stable. But it doesn't mean that we have forgotten about those earlier events. So those earlier events kind of stick with us.

AUBREY: For instance, I have an older sister who had her ways of making me remember that I was the kid sister. So when she got her driver's license, I had to move to the backseat when we picked up her friend, who sat in the front. That reinforced a certain dynamic. But now, as older adults, we do have a very warm and loving relationship.

FADEL: Oh, my gosh, Allison, the amount of fighting I could tell you about between myself and my siblings. But we're so close now.

AUBREY: And you have four, right?

FADEL: Yeah, there are four of them, and we all fought for different reasons. But they're like my big support system now. So how important are these relationships as we age?

AUBREY: Surprisingly important. Strong and positive adult relationships with siblings are tied to less loneliness, less depression. Professor Gilligan says good sibling relationships are even predictive of good emotional health and resilience in middle age.

GILLIGAN: So we found the amount of warmth and conflict that the respondents reported at age 23 was predictive of their emotional distress at age 41. And so I think those early origins of sibling relationships seem to be very salient.

AUBREY: And, you know, Leila, even though people have lots of different relationships with friends over their lifetimes, those who have warm relationships with sisters and brothers report better well-being. And those who have unresolved rivalries or conflict tend to have more emotional angst. The research shows this holds up well into retirement age.

FADEL: So what happens if you don't have a close relationship with your sibling or siblings?

AUBREY: Lots of people are not best friends with their sibling. And interestingly, the study that followed siblings into their 60s found the warmest bonds tend to be between sisters. Now, some siblings have loving relationships but aren't particularly close. The problem comes when there is conflict or parental favoritism. And this can be exacerbated when it comes time to look after elderly parents. So professor Gilligan says it's best to get these feelings out in the open.

GILLIGAN: It's not a good strategy to let it go. So to not say, well, that was in the past. We're just going to forget about it. But instead, like, acknowledging, even just psychologically acknowledging that we're bringing this past history and family dynamics with us and working through some of that.

AUBREY: This can help strengthen sibling bonds, creating a warmer relationship, which may be helpful when it comes time to caring for mom and dad.

FADEL: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks, Allison.

AUBREY: Thanks, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF IKEBE SHAKEDOWN'S "DRAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.

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