The Family System Gives Clues to Adolescent Behavior

It has been said that no two siblings are born into the same family. The first-born child experiences an entirely different environment than each subsequent child born into that same family. Birth order influences the roles that children assume and also the way in which parents relate to each child. Although there has been a wealth of research examining how conflict within families, particularly between parents and adolescents, affects children’s behaviors, less is known about how birth order affects conflict. This line of questioning can be further expanded by asking how a child’s behavior influences the level of parent-child conflict.

To address all of these questions, Chun Bun Lam of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University recently conducted a study that examined the bidirectional influence of risky behavior and parental conflict in a sample of 355 parent-teen dyads. For the study, Lam enlisted the two oldest adolescent members of the families and assessed how their behaviors affected the level of conflict they experienced with their mothers and their fathers. The study also measured how conflict with mothers or conflict with fathers affected risky behavior in each of the teens. Lam and colleagues evaluated the family dyads three separate times over the course of 2 years.

The results revealed that the adolescents with the highest levels of parental conflict at Time 1 engaged in the riskiest behaviors over the 2-year period. Upon further examination, Lam found this result to be somewhat bidirectional. Specifically, Lam discovered that the teens with the highest levels of risky behavior at Time 1 were involved in more father-teen conflicts over the study period than the teens with low levels of risky behavior. However, the high-risk teens did not engage in higher levels of mother-teen conflict when compared to low-risk behavior adolescents. These results shed light on the complicated and unique way in which birth order, behavior and conflict affect future outcomes for adolescents. Lam added, “Findings highlight the importance of examining both family dynamics and child characteristics in understanding sibling differentiation, and illuminate potential differences in parenting processes involving mothers versus fathers.”

Lam, C. B., Solmeyer, A. R., McHale, S. M. (2012). Sibling differences in parent–child conflict and risky behavior: A three-wave longitudinal study. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029083

Related articles:
Mastering the Craft of Parenting
Children in the Balance: Should You Rethink Your Parenting Style?
Communication: Competitive vs Cooperative

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  • Luke


    July 25th, 2012 at 11:43 PM

    Add to that certain discrimination by the parents because you did a big crime of being the ‘older one’ and it can easily become very difficult to have been born in your own place in the family!

  • Townshend


    July 26th, 2012 at 4:11 AM

    No matter what, adolescents are bound to rebel in one way or another. They are either going to do this via risky behavior or having intentional arguments with their parents. But it is going to happen. Why we continue to explore this baffles me, because to me this is just a part of that relationship growing up that will be inevitable for most families. I think that parents can start looking for ways if not to prevent this discord at least ways that they can resolve these conflicts a little more easily. But to prevent them? Nope, not going to happen.

  • Georgia


    July 27th, 2012 at 4:27 AM

    So parent-child conflict breeds risky behavior in kids?
    I believe it.
    When I was that age, I wanted to do anything that I possibly could to frustrate my parents and live on the edge.
    Now you have to realize that living life on the edge in the 1960s was not necessarily the same as today, but it’s all relative.
    It took a ,ong time. probably until I was in my mid 30s for my parents and I to resolve a lot of our issues and forge that really strong family bond again.

  • russ


    July 27th, 2012 at 3:49 PM

    we live up to what beliefs are set up for us.
    oldest child? the achiever
    middle child? family clown
    last child? baby of the family
    what mom and dad set us up to be, most of the time that’s what we become until we grow up and determine what we want to be for ourselves
    unless we sty so wrapped up in those dynamics and never figure out a way to escape them

  • Maddie jones

    Maddie jones

    July 28th, 2012 at 2:46 PM

    Aahhh, that old father-child dynamic coming into play in our lives yet again. I sense a theme here between poor behavioral choices and poor relationships with the father figure in our lives.

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