Levels of Internalising and Externalising in Sibling Relationships

The existing literature on children in out-of-home care demonstrates the importance of maintaining the sibling bond following removal from the family home. However, no support was found for my first hypothesis that children in co-resident placements would have lower externalising and internalising scores but higher prosocial scores compared to children separated from siblings and children with no siblings. A one-way ANOVA revealed that children in co-resident sibling groups actually scored highest on both internalising and externalising scales, with no significant difference in prosocial scores between the three groups. However after accounting for age as a covariate differences between groups were no longer significant, as children in sibling placements were significantly older than both alternative groups. The higher problem scores in co-resident sibling groups were therefore a result of the children being older and not their sibling placement status. Increased problems in older children were reflected by the fact that parents who adopted older children were significantly more likely to have needed or received professional support compared to parents who adopted younger children; however, age did not influence the likelihood of the adopted child receiving or needing support. From this I can conclude that sibling placement does not influence children’s psychosocial outcomes following adoption; such findings go against previous studies which report improved developmental, emotional and behavioural outcomes in children who remain with their siblings. Higher problem scores in older children suggest that age at placement is likely to be a better predictor of adoption outcomes than the continuity of the sibling relationship.

One possible explanation as to why the negative effects of sibling separation weren’t reflected in children’s problems scores as expected may have been due to the majority of children having maintained contact with their siblings, following separation 29% of children had direct (face-to-face) contact and a further 40% had indirect contact. Preserving sibling connections following separation are seen to be beneficial in mitigating feelings of loss and alleviating feelings of anxiety and worry about the wellbeing and safety of siblings. Children whose sibling ties are completely cut by failing to maintain contact are likely to be more adversely affected by sibling separation. Maintaining the sibling bond through direct or indirect contact may be a mediator of negative outcomes following separation and therefore has implications for child welfare practice.

An additional factor which was not considered in the present study was gender, which may have further contributed to the absence of significance between sibling groups. Previous research has highlighted that girls are more adversely affected by separation than boys. Girls have significantly poorer mental health, peer relationships and problem behaviours compared to girls residing with at least one sibling. However, the influence of the sibling relationship on boys in care is less pronounced, with little differences seen between groups. Therefore if the analysis had compared boys and girls separately on their sibling adoption status then differences between groups may have been more apparent due to girls being more vulnerable to the consequences of separation.

One key limitation of the present study was that parents were asked to report on the oldest child in the sibling group, therefore not taking into account the influence of the sibling relationship on the younger sibling. Older siblings often take on the leadership and caregiving role, offering support in the absence of parents. This proposes the possibility that the younger child in the sibling group may benefit more from the presence of the older sibling. However, in extreme cases, the older child in the sibling group may exhibit parentified behaviours, taking the emotional and functional responsibilities that are typically performed by the parent, making it difficult for healthy parent-child relationships to develop, leading to poor adjustment and negative consequences. It is therefore important to investigate the outcomes of all the children in the sibling group as it is likely that they will be impacted differently by separation.

In the present study higher internalising and externalising scores in siblings placed together were accounted for by the older age of children. The average age at placement for children separated from siblings and children with no siblings was 18 months compared to three years old in children placed with siblings, therefore suggesting that older age at placement is a stronger predictor of future problems than sibling separation. This is in line with previous research which has found correlations between older age at placement and later hyperactivity, delinquency and emotional problems. Factors which are seen to reliably predict the likelihood of later maladjustment in care are neglect, abuse and the number of changes or disruptions in the care environment. Older children are more likely to have experienced more time in out-of-home care, had several foster placements and previously failed adoptions before arriving at the adoptive home compared to younger children. Furthermore, they are likely to have experienced longer exposure to maltreatment and emotional deprivation compared to younger children. Such adverse experiences have negative consequences and are more profound in older children which are likely to explain poorer outcomes in children placed at an older age. Increased problems in older children are reflected in the fact that older age at placement is the strongest predictor of placement disruption, with placements after the age of four being 13 times more likely to disrupt.

The majority of previous research has found evidence for the association between joint sibling placement and improved outcomes; however such studies should be addressed with caution as many fail to account for baseline differences between the groups. The present study found that groups differed in age, and differences in problem scores between the three groups were accounted for by age, therefore failing to account for age as a covariate would have led to incorrect conclusions regarding the influence of the sibling relationship on child outcomes. Taking into account baseline differences between groups is essential for accurate conclusions to be made about siblings in care; an additional factor which is often failed to be considered in the existing literature is the direction of causality. The most common factor leading to sibling separation is behavioural or mental health problems in one or both of the children, when failing to take into consideration reasons for separation and pre-placement problems researchers cannot accurately conclude that poor mental health and behaviour problems lead to separation or separation lead to poor mental health and alternatively whether good mental health leads to better outcomes or vice versa. The present study reveals that sibling placements don’t predict better outcomes, which is conflicting with most existing literature, however, if such studies have failed to account for baseline differences including age and reasons for separation then they are likely to be misleading.

Research investigating the sibling relationship in care poses many methodological challenges, which are likely to contribute to the limited existing research carried out in this area. Simply defining a sibling group presents a complex challenge for researchers; in this present study, only children who were biologically related were considered. Children in care are likely to have experienced multiple placements and have very complex sibling relationships. Failing to incorporate less traditional definitions of siblings such as foster siblings who they have lived with for several years before placement, may impair the overall understanding of the sibling relationship in care. It has been proposed that one very important component missing from the research definitions of siblings is who the children in care actually perceive to be their siblings. An additional difficulty is defining sibling placement, often children in care have multiple siblings resulting in partially intact placements, comprising of some siblings being placed in the same home, but other members of the sibling group placed in different homes, the impact of such placements is largely overlooked in the existing literature. Therefore future longitudinal prospective studies are needed in order to allow for accurate conclusions to be made about the association between sibling separation and placement outcomes and child wellbeing, independently of baseline group differences. Furthermore less traditional definitions of siblings and sibling placements need to be considered.

New sibling relationships formed through existing children in the family home are seen to be characterised by rivalry and jealousy often resulting in conflict and leading to negative outcomes. However, no support was found for my second hypothesis that children adopted alone into a family with existing children would have higher levels of internalising and externalising problem scores compared to those children adopted into child-free homes. An ANOVA highlighted that there were no significant differences between the groups on any of the three outcome measures, suggesting that existing children in the family home have little influence on child outcomes. One limitation which might account for the lack of differences between groups is failing to differentiate between the birth siblings and previously adopted siblings in the home, as previous research has suggested that the presence of existing biological children is a better predictor of poor adjustment than previously adopted children. Improvements to the study could have been made by including three independent groups, comprising of children adopted into homes with previously adopted children, children adopted into homes with birth children and children adopted into child-free homes, however the limited number of families with previously adopted children meant that this wasn’t possible. Furthermore, the influence of existing children in the adopted is seen to be dependent on the ordinal position of the adopted child. This present study focused on the influence of existing children in the home prior to adoption, however, it has been found more first-placed adopted children compared to later-placed children are referred for psychiatric services and are at an increased risk for behaviour problems. This suggests that it is only when a child is born or adopted into the home following adoption that the child is at risk of adjustment problems and poorer outcomes. This is likely due to new children in the home inducing feelings of displacement and rejection in the, thereby fostering heightened feelings of anger and resentment towards the younger siblings and the parents. However, data were not available regarding children born or adopted into the family home following the adoption of the child, the effect of the ordinal position of siblings in adopted homes may underlie negative outcomes and is needed to be further investigated.

07 July 2022
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