Did the pandemic bring your kids closer? How quarantine shaped sibling relationships
This is the Jan. 31, 2022, edition of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, kids and parenting. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Monday.
We talk a lot about how the pandemic isolated young people at a time that’s especially crucial for their social and emotional development (as we should, given the rising rates of grief, anxiety and depression).
What’s often missing from that discussion, though, are brothers and sisters. Most kids in the U.S. spent the majority of their lockdown time with their siblings.
It’s hard for me to fathom being stuck at home 24/7 with my little sister (with our three-year age gap) as a child. We bickered enough as it was — which, of course, is not unusual. But we had the luxury of being apart many hours of the day while at school.
But I also have so many good memories of being with my sister in our younger years. And as we meandered into adolescence and found some common ground (music, hating our hometown) we became friends.
Yes, sibling relationships are complicated — some of the most complicated we will ever have. So I wanted to know how the pandemic might be affecting those bonds among younger sibs (and, conversely, how they shaped youths’ experience of the pandemic).
I interviewed a few researchers who have begun to study just that. But before I dive into their findings, it’s important to understand why sibling relationships are so unique and formative.
The developmental significance of sibling relationships
Unlike friendship, the famously fraught ties of siblings are not voluntary. Because of how much time they spend with each other, and the fact that they’re often competing for resources (like parental attention), there’s tremendous potential for conflict, said Melanie Dirks, a siblings researcher at McGill University in Montreal.
Yet many sibling relationships are also warm and intimate. In fact, research finds that frequent conflict between siblings doesn’t necessarily preclude closeness. The relationship can withstand a lot of friction because, for better or worse, your sibling most likely isn’t going anywhere.
“With such intensity of contact, there’s a lot of opportunities to develop a co-constructed history. It’s a really rich ground for closeness,” Dirks told me. “A very high-quality sibling relationship may be protective for kids experiencing stressors, like the divorce of their parents.”
With our siblings, we learn how to argue and resolve conflict, how to be a leader and a follower, how to be a good companion. “Experiences people have with siblings shape how people conceptualize what a relationship is,” Dirks said.
With all that said, the lockdown phase of the pandemic, when many kids were out of school and with their families 24-7, was an unprecedented situation for most sibs.
Researchers have looked at how the early days of the pandemic affected sibling relationships, particularly among adolescents. Studies show that the essential nature of those bonds (positive or negative) stayed relatively stable.
“The pandemic was essentially an accelerator,” said Nicole Campione-Barr, an adolescent development and family relations researcher at the University of Missouri. “If relationships were good, they got better, and if they were bad, they got worse. It really seemed to just add gasoline to whatever fire they were on track for.”
As Dirks put it: “Quarantine presented a significant risk [for sibling relationships] — and significant opportunity.”
The ability to maintain a positive connection with a sibling, however, depended on the amount of stress and chaos within the family during the pandemic. For example, a study by Dirks and colleague Alexa Martin-Storey of the Université de Sherbrooke in Canada found very little change in relationships among Canadian siblings in their sample, which was largely affluent.
“As socioeconomic status decreased, there was more stress — crowded spaces, financial problems, fighting over limited resources like screens — and more problems in relationships,” Martin-Storey said.
Reuma Gadassi-Polack, a researcher at Yale University, found that teens 13 to 17 — when compared with kids ages 9-12 — had on average more positive interactions with their siblings during the early pandemic. That’s likely because the ability to benefit from extra time with your brother or sister is something that comes with maturity.
“By then, our social skills are a bit more advanced,” Gadassi-Polack said. “We’re able to share and see the long-term benefits of sharing. We can control our emotions, calm ourselves, think of creative ways to resolve conflict.”
The family system has been more influential during the pandemic than friends during a developmental period for children when the opposite would normally be true, Gadassi-Polack explained. “What we saw in the pandemic,” she said, “was there was no increase in social interactions with friends and romantic interests among teens, when that really should be the case.”
So, in many cases, siblings stood in for teens’ friends and may have somewhat dulled the social anguish of quarantine. Gadassi-Polack’s study found that kids and teens who had more positive interactions with siblings saw smaller increases in depressive symptoms.
This made me think of Stephanie Contreras-Reyes, a high school senior I interviewed in 2020 for a story on teens who began working during the pandemic to support their families. Stephanie (now a freshman at Stanford) worked night shifts at an embroidery factory, helped care for her siblings and juggled several AP classes. She was completely overwhelmed. What kept her afloat, she said, was her relationship with her younger sister and their long walks together at sunset.
Although sibling relationships may have provided a buffer against the worst mental health effects of the pandemic, they don’t neatly replace the developmental rewards gained through relationships outside the family. Learning to be a good friend requires more finesse than, say, recovering from a gnarly argument with your brother, who will still have to pass you the green beans at the dinner table. “With friends, you don’t have your parents there to help you,” Gadassi-Polack said. “Teens need to figure out how to have healthy relationships by themselves, without the safety net of the family.”
So, unfortunately, the social skills of many teens who have siblings — but weren’t around friends in 2020-21 — were still weakened, Gadassi-Polack said.
Still, for the young people who did get closer with their siblings, the benefits could last a lifetime.
“Adolescence is a tipping point,” Campione-Barr said. “If siblings are close and engaged at that time — even if they also fight — they’re likely to remain close well into adulthood.” This means having devoted aunts and uncles for your kids, and an ally when you experience the grief and complex decision-making that come with aging parents.
This look into the future is all speculation, of course, based on what these researchers know already about siblings. Jenna Dayley, a family studies researcher at Utah State University, wonders what these relationships will look like in a decade, when the teens of today are young adults.
“Will they lean on each other more, like they would a friend, because of this shared experience?” she asked. “It’s like having an old war buddy.”
Student activists get fired up
The pandemic has ignited a new chapter of activism among students in California since their return from winter break. Students have spoken out during school board meetings, fired up social media accounts, and organized boycotts, petitions and walkouts, efforts prompted by what they saw as lax campus safety measures amid the Omicron variant surge. My colleague Melissa Gomez chronicled the efforts of two of these student activists: one in the Bay Area, one in Southern California.
Opponents of COVID-19 vaccine mandates for students have extended the reach of their litigation to a Westside charter school after filing suits against the state’s two largest school systems, Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified, Times writer Howard Blume reports. The suit targets New West Charter on behalf of unidentified students at the school, alleging that the school’s student vaccine mandate is unnecessary, discriminatory and in violation of California laws regarding vaccine policy.
Parents say a man has repeatedly harassed their middle school children for wearing masks as they walk to and from school in La Crescenta-Montrose. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department is investigating after a video was captured of the man (wearing a shirt with the words “Your mask makes you look stupid”) shouting at a group of students huddled near a car in a parking lot near Rosemont Middle School, writes Nathan Solis.
It’s likely that California State University will permanently scrap SAT and ACT testing requirements for admission — a move that would align the nation’s largest four-year higher education system with the University of California, which dumped the standardized exams it criticized as biased and of little value. The Board of Trustees will vote on the proposal in March, and if it’s approved, a council of students, faculty and administrators will craft a new admissions formula and suggest when to begin using it, according to Times writer Teresa Watanabe.
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What else we’re reading this week
High school graduation rates fell in at least 20 states after the first full school year disrupted by the pandemic, suggesting the coronavirus may have stalled nearly 20 years of nationwide progress toward getting more students diplomas. Chalkbeat
The No. 1 reason low-income students drop out of college is financial struggle, and often because of smaller expenses that middle- or higher-income families wouldn’t think twice about. Some colleges and nonprofit organizations across the U.S. are recognizing the hidden obstacles and finding creative ways to clear the path. Washington Post
Oakland’s school board will consider closing or consolidating what could be more than a dozen schools before the fall after losing more than 15,000 students since the early 2000s. San Francisco Chronicle
Parents, activists, school board officials and lawmakers around the country are challenging books at a pace not seen in decades. The American Library Assn. said in a preliminary report that it received an “unprecedented” 330 reports of book challenges last fall — including many bans. New York Times
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