I am the youngest of 3 children and I have two of my own kids. No study can provide me with better evidence of the powerful influence older siblings have on younger ones than my own life. I distinctly remember wanting to do everything my older brothers did, whether that meant becoming a strong swimmer or learning to play the violin. I was like a little mynah bird as I copied behaviors and attitudes of my older siblings. I am not alone in my experience.
Developmental psychologist, Patricia East, started out her career working at an OB-GYN clinic that serviced pregnant teens on Thursday mornings. What she noticed while working there sparked her curiosity and ultimately lead to her life’s work.
She watched as teenaged girls arrived for their prenatal appointments with younger siblings in tow. The nursing staff occasionally recognized pregnant teens as the younger sibling of a previous patient. East started to notice a trend. Many of the girls who were having babies at a young age were the younger sisters of girls who had also done so. She began to realize that the little sisters sitting next to their pregnant older sisters were likely in training for their own teenage pregnancy experience. From this observation East decided she wanted to do a study.
What East learned from her research was that younger sisters of pregnant teens are 5 times more likely to get pregnant when they are an adolescent than those whose older sister did not do so. People tend to focus on parental influences and it is true that parents heavy influence the first child and so there may be a cascading effect, but it turns out that siblings play a large role, particularly in anti-social behavior, in shaping the lives of their younger brothers and sisters.
The studies have shown that older siblings actually have more of an influence than parents when it comes to things such as smoking. In fact, a younger sibling has a 25% higher chance of being a smoker if their sibling also smokes and when it comes to consuming alcohol the risk increases to 36%. The effects cross all socio-economic boundaries. When a family is either psychologically or economically unstable the effects of the older sibling are magnified because parents may not be around a great deal and siblings are left together to fend for themselves.
Richard Rende, a professor of psychiatry at Brown University is also interested in this field of study and believes that this new data presents a serious challenge to the idea that parents are the primary influence on their children. The good news is that he believes that this works both ways and that good behaviors are also mimicked.
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