Robin Williams, Siblings and Suicide

The upside of the terribly distressing and sad loss of Robin Williams is that people are talking a lot about suicide these days.  The discussion, however, tends to focus on the mental health of individuals — perhaps the central feature of suicidal processes — and less on the families and communities in which individuals function and are impacted by.  For example, research has shown that family ties are important for preventing suicide. Having strong family ties during childhood has long-term protective consequences. They provide a strong sense of belonging.

An often forgotten relationship in the discussion of suicide and suicide prevention are siblings. There is now a decent body of literature that suggests that positive sibling relationships can buffer the negative effects of stressful or harmful environments such as living in families with domestic violence, substance abuse, divorce, and with peer bullying.  When sibling relationships are good, individuals have trustworthy confidants with similar histories — a person (or people) to seek out when the world seems overwhelming and hopeless.  Individuals are more willing to discuss taboo and difficult topics — such as sex and suicide — with siblings than with parents.

Robin Williams had two half-brothers.  Research has shown that the further children are in the birth order, the higher the risk of depression and suicide (partially attributed to the quality of early childhood ties). Although Williams was the youngest, he essentially grew up as an only child.  He did not even know he had one brother until he was a few years old (Robert Williams) and the other until the age of 9 (McLaurin Smith Williams).  Although they met sporadically throughout their lives and described their relationships as good, they could not have been considered to be close relationships. Family ties early in development are most critical and Williams did not have close relationships with his brothers early in childhood as he didn’t even know they existed.

This is not to say that Robin Williams committed (or was a victim of) suicide because of his sibling relationships, or even his early family ties. Suicide is exceptionally complicated and does involve mental health challenges, is often accompanied by drugs and/or alcohol, and typically an impulsive act.  Individuals even from well-functioning families still do commit suicide (although at lower rates). My point is that when we discuss ways to prevent suicide, discussions should go beyond individual mental health considerations, and also consider families and how fostering strong family ties and positive sibling relationships can have life-saving capabilities years later. Building positive sibling relationships is in many ways more doable than treating lifelong depression, and can actually go a long way in lessening the affects of depression.

Finally, families live in social environments that can support or undermine them. To prevent suicide, we need communities to support families, build family and sibling ties, and give individuals the connections that prevent feelings of isolation and hopelessness.

My thoughts go out to Robin’s family, his wife, children, and to his one remaining sibling.



Why do Firstborn Girls Have Higher Aspirations and Educational Attainment than Their Siblings?

A new study by Feifei Bu called “Sibling Configurations, Educational Aspiration and Attainment,” was just released by the UK’s Institute for Social and Economics Research, and reports some very interesting findings on gender, birth order and age-spacing (click here for the original report).  It also does some interesting work toward addressing longstanding methodological concerns related to birth order.

The finding that is getting the most attention is that firstborn females report having higher educational aspirations and have higher educational attainment than their siblings regardless of their sex or birth order position.

Why is this interesting?  Firstborn male advantage has long been the focus of the birth order discussion.  Males occupy more leadership positions, particularly those that are highly visible such as national politicians, CEO’s, athletes, and high profile scientists.  Males have more high achieving role models and despite this, females have higher aspirations.  This suggests that there are processes happening within families that support female firstborn advantage, even overcoming longstanding social forces that support firstborn male advantage (think of the long history and legacy of firstborn inheritance laws, favor of firstborn males in religion, and male power in patriarchal societies).

Explanations for Firstborn Advantage

Some of the family processes that support firstborn female advantage are that firstborns (regardless of sex) occupy the position as leader of siblings by virtue of their age, size and cognitive or thinking abilities (older children are more cognitively developed than younger).  Being the leader among siblings socializes children toward assertiveness and achievement (olders have to outpace their youngers, for example).  Firstborns also operate as teachers of their younger siblings.  I was on once on line in a Dunkin Donuts and observed a 4 year old saying to 2 year old brother, “You put your hat on like this,” while demonstrating.  Teaching is a leadership behavior as it entails directing others to pay attention and follow. Firstborns do this quite a bit and with the support of their parents.

Firstborns also enjoy uninterrupted parental investment until their first sibling arrives.  High investment during early years of childhood reaps many benefits including intellectual development.

Firstborns are also tend to be more rule-abiding than laterborns.  Yes, there are firstborn troublemakers, but research has suggested that firstborns as a group are more likely to be “good” children.  What does it mean to be a good child? It means to follow your parents’ rules and expectations.  When the second born arrives and starts to “steal” attention away, firstborns have a choice to either eliminate their siblings, leave home, or follow their parents rules to maintain favor.  Most choose the latter.  They help their parents with feeding and caretaking, and become protective.  They say things like, “Don’t put that in your mouth, it isn’t food and you will hurt yourself” and “Eat all your dinner” — things parents say.  They take on the identity as good “big brothers” and “big sisters” — and you can find many t-shirts online to reinforce these identities!  Being rule abiding means following parental expectations for high performance in school, and it means following the rules of school — doing homework, listening, adhering to the teacher’s expectations.  Doing well in school is self-reinforcing, it feels good, and it raises self-confidence and self-esteem.  Children who are rule-abiding tend to do well in school and as a result develop high aspirations for achievement.

Firstborns, because they are more rule abiding, are more likely to occupy the position of being the “good child” in the family.  Laterborns seek to carve out their own niches and identities.  They observe the family environment and “learn” (not always consciously) that

Finally, birth order stereotyping may be at work.  Parents and society believes that firsborns are smarter and better suited for leadership so their interactions with them may reflect such expectations.


OK, but why do firstborn girls have higher aspirations than firstborn boys?  The study did not answer this question directly, but we can speculate. Consider two of the above explanations for firstborn advantage: 1) engaging in teaching behavior and 2) being rule-abiding.  Then, throw in research evidence that suggests that girls mature earlier than boys in some cognitive and emotional areas, presumably because of developing brain connections earlier.  Again, doing well in school is self-reinforcing and early success leads to high achievement. These dynamics all favor girls over boys.  Girls are more likely to engage in caretaking and teaching of younger siblings due to environmental socialization and perhaps genetically-based sex differences.  They also tend to be better behaved in school and at home.  This may be that teachers and parents don’t see misbehavior in the same way for boys and girls, or again, due to socialization practices, that girls are more invested in taking on the “third parent” role when the new sibling arrives.

Girls tend to better with educational pursuits. More females attend and graduate from college and graduate school than males. Male advantage in math and science is shrinking.  Why this occurs could occupy an entire other posting (or book), but in short, it is likely the combination of social and familial forces that work together to support firstborn female advantage.


There were two other interesting findings in this research report.  The first, age-spacing (the number of years between siblings) plays a role in educational attainment. The second, the research methodology Bu utilized looks at within family processes in addition to across-family outcomes.  Typically, birth order research has used across family designs which has been problematic.  It’s a bit technical, but I may take it up in a posting down the road.

 I will post about age-spacing advantage in a soon-to-come post!


Thoughts to come…

Sibling stories are ever-present:   In the movies, sports, the Bible, and as social issues.  Siblings raise many emotions.  They are often our best friends and our worst enemies…and that can be the same sibling.  We experience sibling support, loss, illness, disabilities, substance abuse, and achievements.  They make us uncles and aunt’s and change our lives…without asking us permission first!  Keep an eye out here for my thoughts on a range of sibling observations and critiques.  Please comment and engage in conversation. We can untangle the complicating webs cast by sibling relationships.