David B. Latham and Dr. Susanne Olsen, Marriage, Family, and Human Development
Many family scholars have taken the theoretical perspective that families behave as a system. Each family member has a role to play and their behaviors affect all other members of the family system. Because each family is made up of different types of individuals, the family dynamic will be different for each family. However, general trends can be observed in families who are facing similar challenges and difficulties.
A challenge that many families face is caring for a child with a disability. The child’s disability will affect the family system as each family member copes with the child’s needs. The purpose of this study was to look at how the parental factors of depression, and marital conflict are related to sibling relationships in a family with a child with a disability. My hypothesis was that higher levels of marital conflict and parental depression would be positively related to poor sibling relationships.
The data used in my research was gathered by Dr. Susanne Olsen and her colleagues in an IRB approved study. The instruments used to gather the data were the CES-D Depression Scale (Randloff, 1977) for parental depression, the Porter O’Leary Marital Conflict Scale (Porter & O’Leary, 1980) for marital conflict, and the Sibling Inventory of Behavior (Chamrad, Robinson, & Janos, 1995) for a measure of sibling conflict.
Seventy-four families participated in this study. The mean parental age was 41.81 years for the fathers and 40.32 years for the mothers, with a mean educational level of 15.28 years and 14.51 years respectively. The families had a mean income of $35,000. The child’s disability included both physical and mental disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism, developmental delay, and cerebral palsy. The mean age of the child with the disability was 8.4 years and 10.93 years for the non-disabled sibling.
I analyzed the correlation between levels of marital conflict and depression with sibling relationships for both the father and the mother and found various significant relationships. For mothers who reported high levels of marital conflict, the sibling was more likely to tease the child with the disability (r =.338; p< .05), which supported my hypothesis. However, these siblings were also more likely to show more sympathy towards their disabled sibling (r =.400; p< .05), and treat them as a good friend (r =.374; p< .05). These behaviors seem to go against my hypothesis. For fathers, high levels of marital conflict were significantly correlated with the sibling’s willingness to help their disabled brother or sister (r =.334; p< .05) and the sibling hurting their brother or sister’s feelings (r =.326; p<.05). Again, these behaviors seem to contradict each other. When the fathers reported high levels of depression, the siblings were less likely to show pleasure in their disabled sibling’s progress (r = -.407; p<.05), have desire to see them succeed (r = -.413; p< .01), or show a willingness to teach them new skills (r = -.364; p< .05). Also, the sibling was more likely to tease the disabled brother or sister (r =.334; p< .05), and show a desire to stay away from him or her if possible (r =.355; p< .05). These correlations seem to support the hypothesis that negative parental attitudes have a detrimental affect on sibling relationships in families with a child suffering from a disability. It was interesting to note that while the father’s reported level of depression was related to a number of sibling behaviors, the mother’s was not. This was despite the fact that comparing the parent’s responses in a T-test showed the mother reporting significantly higher levels of depression than the fathers. This would seem to suggest that the father’s level of depression has a greater impact than that of the mother. However, further research would be needed to come to a more solid conclusion in this area. Overall it would seem that my original hypothesis that negative parental behaviors and attitudes have a negative affect on the sibling relationships of a child with a disability was partially supported. However, the strength of this relationship is not as strong as I had anticipated. The greatest surprise was that the mother’s level of depression had no significant relationship with the sibling behaviors. A limitation of this study is that I had no data on a comparison group of families without a child with a disability. It would be interesting to see how the relationships would differ, or if there would be any significant difference at all. Areas of future research might include comparing the results from this study to a control group of families without a child with a disability, looking further into the indication that the level of the father’s depression seemed to have a greater impact than that of the mother, and why the siblings often displayed contradictory behaviors such as a willingness to help but also a willingness to hurt the sibling’s feelings. It is clear that the dynamics of families with a child with a disability need to be explored further. It will be through this continuing research that health care professionals will be able to provide better service and education to these unique families.