Familial Risk and Sibling Mentalization: Links With Preschoolers’ Internalizing Problems

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The current study explored whether older sibling mentalization moderated the relationship between familial risk for internalizing symptoms and the development of future internalizing problems in the younger siblings, referred to as target children. Data were collected on 397 older siblings at Time 1 (T1) when target children were newborn and their older siblings were on average 2.61 years old (SD = .75). Target children were on average 1.60 years old at Time 2 (T2). Internalizing problems were assessed via mother and partner reports. Familial risk was operationalized as the average of all older siblings’ level of internalizing problems. Older sibling mentalization, indexed by internal state talk and reasoning, was observed and coded during a sibling pretend-play interaction at T2. Results revealed a significant interaction between familial risk of internalizing problems and older siblings’ mentalizing abilities, showing that familial risk was related to target children’s internalizing problems in the absence of sibling mentalization. Familial risk was not associated with target children’s internalizing problems when siblings demonstrated mentalizing abilities. Findings support the need to consider sibling mentalization as a protective factor for children’s internalizing problems.

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