Psychology Ph.D. Dissertations


Conflict or Solidarity: Understanding Sibling Relationships in Families Coping with Parental Mental Illness

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Catherine Stein (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Brittany Joseph (Other)

Third Advisor

Dryw Dworsky (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Dale Klopfer (Committee Member)


Research has examined sibling relationships among families dealing with challenging life circumstances such as parental divorce or other high-conflict situations. These studies have primarily focused on the congruency and compensatory hypotheses of relationships to understand how sibling relate to each other in difficult family circumstances. The congruency hypothesis suggests that sibling relationships are reflective of parental or parent-child relationships. In contrast, the compensatory hypothesis contends that sibling relationships can act as buffering in families dealing with high conflict. Few studies have examined these conceptual frameworks as they relate to how adult siblings cope with a parent with mental illness. The present qualitative study examined first-person accounts of young adult siblings with mothers with mental illness (anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder). A multiple perspectives research design was used to examine the accounts of 10 adult siblings from five families to understand their views of sibling relationships and family ties. Participants completed individual semi-structured interviews in which they discussed their relationships with their mother, father, and siblings, caregiving experiences, their personal mental health, and positive experiences related to having a mother with mental illness. Qualitative content analysis found support for both the congruency and compensatory hypotheses of sibling relationships among families living with parental mental illness. Findings also highlighted the potential for positive experiences and growth, as well as the significance of social support, for young adults who have a mother with mental illness. Implications of study findings for research and clinical practice are discussed.