Pilot Project Investigates Effects of Sibling Death

Each year, CDHA provides pilot grants to affiliates engaged in innovative research that is likely to lead to support from external funders. During the academic year 2014–15, PIs Barbara Wolfe (public affairs, economics, population health sciences), Jason Fletcher (public affairs; sociology), Jan Greenberg (social work), and Marsha Mailick (vice chancellor for research and graduate education; social work) received pilot funding for the study “Disrupted Family Dynamics: How Children Are Affected by Sibling Death and Disability.” The project explored the influence of non-normative sibling relationships—those in which a sibling was disabled or died during childhood.

Although sibling relationships can be some of the most important and long lasting, little is known about the effects of siblings on one another’s development over the life course. Building on research conducted in the pilot, Wolfe, Fletcher, and Marian Vidal-Fernandez (University of Sydney) explored the effects of sibling death on a child’s developmental outcomes in a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Using the Children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, the researchers found that the effects of sibling death on cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes—like math and reading skills, behavioral problems, and home environment—are substantial initially and then decline over time. However, this process can take at least ten years to complete. Therefore, the findings suggest, research focused on longer-term adult effects of sibling death will miss the full impacts immediately following the death of a sibling during childhood.

Funding for the 2014–15 pilot project stemmed from a center grant from the National Institute on Aging. The research described in the 2018 paper was also supported by the William T. Grant Foundation.