Bereaved siblings experience more externalizing problems compared to non-bereaved peers and norms; however, the mechanisms explaining this phenomenon have not been empirically examined. This study tested the serial indirect effects of sibling bereavement on adolescents’ externalizing problems through parent distress (i.e., internalizing symptoms) and parenting (i.e., parenting behaviors, parent-adolescent communication).
During home visits, 72 bereaved adolescents (ages 10–18) whose brother/sister died from cancer and 60 comparison peers reported about their externalizing problems and their mothers’ and fathers’ parenting behaviors (warmth, behavioral control, psychological control) and parent-adolescent communication (open communication, problematic communication). Mothers and fathers reported their own internalizing symptoms.
Bereaved siblings reported more externalizing problems (p = 0.048) and bereaved mothers reported more internalizing symptoms relative to the comparison group (p = 0.015). Serial multiple mediation models indicated that elevated externalizing problems were partially explained by both bereaved mothers’ internalizing symptoms and parenting and communication (less warmth [CI: 0.04, 0.86], more psychological control [CI: 0.03, 0.66], and more problematic mother-adolescent communication [CI: 0.03, 0.79]), with a significant indirect effect also emerging for open mother-adolescent communication [CI: 0.05, 1.59]. Bereaved fathers did not significantly differ in internalizing symptoms from comparison fathers (p = 0.453), and no significant indirect effects emerged for fathers.
Elevated externalizing problems in bereaved siblings may result from mothers’ distress and the impact on their parenting and communication. Targeting adjustment and parenting in bereaved mothers following a child’s death may reduce externalizing problems in bereaved siblings. Research to evaluate family-centered interventions is needed.