Teenage Risk Taking & The Power of Older Siblings

It’s no secret that siblings influence each other. It’s natural to look to your big brother or sister for guidance. Often times, younger siblings ask questions of their older siblings that they don’t feel comfortable asking their parents. Topics like teen romance, sex, gossip, and substance abuse are some of the most common topics of sibling discussions. These older brothers and sisters can offer wisdom and advice, but they also mustn’t forget the direct influence their behavior has on their younger, more impressionable brother or sister.

An exploratory study published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence took an in-depth look at understanding the power of influence an older sibling’s behavior has on their younger counterpart. The study invited 43 pairs of siblings (one older sibling aged 14-17 and one younger sibling aged 11-13) to play a driving simulation game while being hooked up to an fMRI scan. The younger siblings were shown recordings of their older siblings’ games, after which they were asked to play the same game. Younger siblings emulated the risk-taking behavior of their older sibling when playing the game, demonstrating that they are more likely to take risks if their sibling took a lot of risks. On the flip side, younger siblings were more cautious if their older sibling played it safe while driving.

Interestingly, the researchers noted that the behavior of the older siblings more deeply resonated with younger siblings if they were the same sex, close in age, and regarded as a role model.

Adolescence is a tricky time for everyone. As a parent, you can’t expect your teen to come to you to with all the confusing, awkward, and uncomfortable questions they have – just as you didn’t go to your parents to seek answers to your confusing, awkward, and uncomfortable questions. Instead, they may resort to their siblings for counsel. The study above is proof that raising one child to make smart, risk-averse decisions will likely influence your second child to walk a similar path.

Let’s dig deeper. What is the role of a parent in a sibling relationship?

  • Look for ways to strengthen the relationship between your kids.
    • As the study pointed out, the more bonded the siblings are, the more intrinsically linked their behavior is. Even if they don’t want to at first, encourage your children to hang out with each other – start this process when they’re young so they are more likely to want to hang out with each other as they reach adolescence and beyond. Persuade them to play games together, go to the movies together, do anything together that deepens their relationship.
  • Motivate your older teen to make and model smart decisions in front of their younger sibling.
    • As a parent, you want nothing more than your child to make good decisions. However, the importance of older siblings to make intelligent, moral choices is paramount. It can have a ripple effect on a younger sibling’s ability to make similar choices throughout their life. While extremely simple, the “monkey see, monkey do” phenomenon is quite powerful. If the younger monkey sees the older, more accomplished monkey doing something, they are likely going to walk in their footsteps – even if it’s risky.
  • Explain the ripple effect to the older sibling.
    • If your older child is acting irrationally, explain the importance of being a role model to their younger brother or sister. When they act up, use a similar talk track to, “if you continue to behave this way, your little sister/brother is going to act that way too. Do you want that for her/him?” This is a great chance to explain the concept of empathy to your child – as well as giving the older sibling a sense of power and agency. They will hopefully understand the monumental influence they have on their sibling and change their behavior accordingly.

Siblings can be helpful role models in navigating through the trials and tribulations of life. They are a great sounding board for ideas, and they are wonderful confidants to inquire about life’s many peculiarities. However, not many older siblings may realize the profound impact they can have on their younger brothers and sisters just by making commendable decisions and behaving in respectable ways.

Do you have any tips of your own to share when it comes to navigating the sibling dynamic? Be sure to share them with your fellow parents alongside the tips above!

Take Action

Increased awareness can only mean increased prevention. Join us in the fight against teen cough medicine abuse by exploring and sharing our free resources.