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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Extra-Ordinary Siblings: The Early Life Course Consequences of having a Sibling with a Disability

  • Author(s): Penner, Anna
  • Advisor(s): Treas, Judith
  • et al.

Twelve percent of families in the United States have a child with a disability, yet little is known about the long-term consequences of growing up with a sibling with a disability. This study builds on previous research regarding disability effects on families and offers an additional view on sibling effects in general. By utilizing the life course perspective, this dissertation examines the linked lives of siblings with and without disabilities as well as the association between having a disabled sibling in childhood across early life course outcomes. Within the life course context, this dissertation examines how family stress theory, adultification, and resource dilution interact with sibling disability status to yield the results.

Using secondary data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 Children and Young Adults, this study examines behavioral problems during childhood, risk behaviors during adolescence and early adulthood, and college completion rates among young adults who had a disabled sibling during childhood. Both boys and girls with a disabled sibling have higher reports of behavioral problems in childhood than those without a disabled sibling. Both boys and girls with a disabled sibling exhibit more externalizing behaviors than those without, particularly antisocial behaviors. Furthermore, girls with a disabled sibling also exhibit more anxiety, peer conflict, and headstrong behaviors than girls without a disabled sibling. These behavioral problems do not persist into adolescence, however, and young men and women with a disabled sibling see similar or lower rates of risk behaviors as those without a disabled sibling. Adultification appears to contribute to the lower likelihood of risk behaviors particularly in adolescence. Women are less likely to complete college if they had a sibling with a disability during childhood; there is no significant difference by sibling disability status for men. While family income and mother’s education do not attenuate the college completion gap between those with and without a disabled sibling, having stably married parents during childhood largely eliminates this gap.

By identifying these differences, this dissertation reveals how disabilities have consequences not just for the individuals with disabilities, but for their siblings as well, shining a light on this otherwise hidden cost of disability on families.

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