How the Presence or Absence of a Sister is Related to Disclosure in Mother-daughter Relationships
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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KUJANEK, K. M. & SALAS, A.V. (2004). How the Presence or Absence of a Sister is Related to Disclosure in Mother-daughter Relationships. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 7. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

How the Presence or Absence of a Sister is Related to Disclosure in Mother-daughter Relationships

Sponsored by: ELIZABETH HAMMER (
The disclosure within mother-daughter relationships were compared for those participants with a sister and those without a sister. There were forty-seven participants. All participants were female, were over eighteen years old, had a living birth mother, and parents who were still married. The amount of disclosure was measured by a survey asking about disclosure of various events and feelings to one’s mother, and to one’s sister if a sister was present. Hypothesis one was that if a sister was present there would be greater disclosure of personal information to the sisters than to the mother. Hypothesis two was that participants without a sister would disclose more in mother-daughter relationships, compared to those participants with a sister. The results did not support the hypotheses, but there were other interesting findings, including more information about one’s first kiss was disclosed to the sister rather than the mother.

Family relationships and the different dynamics within families are popular studies in developmental psychology. The focus of these studies range from infancy to adolescence, and look at how the relationships in the family change over time. Families tend to be enduring, often throughout the span of one’s lifetime, and the members in the family often share a history. Families are ascribed to us and, even if not bound legally, are bound by blood. The present study will examine mother-daughter relationships, as well as sister relationships, among college-aged women. In general, it is in early-adulthood that relationships become more stable. There are no major biological changes occurring, emotions are more stable, and it is a period of growth and independence. The majority of first-year college students experience a huge transitional change from high school to college (Moos, 1976). Many students leave their families to go to a school where they may know no one, or very few people. It is during this period in one’s life when there is an increased need for stable support, and this can often be found rooted in the family. The demographics of the family structure are important to examine, as they can change the dynamics of family relationships. In today’s society there are an increasing number of reconstituted families emerging. Divorce and remarriage increase family variation with the introduction of stepsiblings, half-siblings, and adoptive siblings. These changes have “a profound effect on relationships within the total family and sibling relationships in particular,” (Cicirelli, 1995). It is for this reason that our study controls for reconstituted families. In traditional families, where the biological mother and biological father are married, there are patterns that exist among mothers and fathers in parenting. Mothers tend to interact with their children more than their fathers do. Fathers tend to converse less and also spend less time with their children, which accounts for why adolescents often report that they are closer to their mothers than their fathers (Bornstein & Lamb, 1999). Although mothers tend to interact more with their children, they also report to interacting and engaging in more activities with their daughters than their sons (Bornstein & Lamb, 1999). On the contrary, fathers engage in more activities with their sons than their daughters. It seems through these findings that the mother-daughter dyad is the most significant and developed in parent-child relationships. The relationship of siblings in the family is another important area of family studies. Cicirelli (1995) defines sibling relationships as, “the total of the interactions (physical, verbal, and nonverbal communication) of two or more individuals who share knowledge, perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, and feelings regarding each other, from the time that one sibling becomes aware of the other.” Cicirelli (1995) also notes the importance of sibling relationships because they can continue to exist even when contact and proximity deteriorate. The importance of sibling relationships is stressed because they are the relationships that will prevail throughout most of our life spans (Deater-Deckard, Dunn & Lussier, 2002). Siblings offer unconditional support and advice to each other. Cicirelli (1996) purports that siblings are one of the fundamental instruments in development and growth in early life, which further explains the importance of this relationship (as cited by Deater-Deckard et al., 2002). Siblings influence each other’s actions, learning and development throughout the life span. The degree to which one is influenced varies, but the important factor to recognize is the longevity of the relationship. The relationship between siblings varies during different stages of the life span. Most sibling relationships continue throughout the various life stages, meaning siblings are still influencing each other. In a study by Cicirelli (1995), he finds that closeness to a sister, by either a sister or brother, is related to higher reports of well-being and less depression. This does not imply that brothers induce depression, but rather brothers were not relevant to well-being. Sibling studies also find that sisters tend to be more important in sibling relationships as siblings begin to age. This difference results from the gender disparity in emotion. Women tend to express emotions more and have an intuitive sense to nurture (Cicirelli, 1995). Sister-sister relationships are the other focus of this study since the relationship between sister-brother, sister-sister, and brother-brother appear to be different. Self-disclosure is another key variable in this study. It is operationally defined as the amount of personal information one shares with another individual. Gender differences are not only present in intra-familial relationships, but are also present in self-disclosure. Females tend to measure the closeness of their relationships by how much they talk to another individual, and also by the content of what is disclosed. Females also disclose more information about themselves as well (Quatman & Swanson, 2002). Males are more likely to measure closeness not by how much information is disclosed, but by what activities they share in doing together (Quatman et al., 2002). Despite these differences, however, Rivenbark’s (1971) study (as cited in Quatman et al., 2002) finds that as age increases so does peer-related disclosure among males and females. Self-disclosure is an important variable to study since it is often a mark of closeness in relationships. It seems logical that the more one discloses with another the closer they are, due to more information about that person being known. Self-disclosure is often the tool that measures the development of personal relationships (Levesque, Steciuk & Ledley, 2002). It is important to examine core relationships in one’s life according to Floyd and Parks (1995) because, “of all the relationships one forms in a lifetime, it is often the close, personal ones by which a person measures the quality of life.” Self-disclosure can also promote self-fulfillment and improve communication skills (Chaikin & Derlega, 1974). It is also an important variable because it is shown to decrease loneliness, and establish relationships that are meaningful. Self-disclosure can occur in many different fashions. It can be verbally communicated or nonverbally communicated. Our study operationally defines it as reported verbal communication, but it can also occur through body language. Eye contact, positional distance from the listener, and facial expressions are all non-verbal methods in which disclosure can be communicated. Self-disclosure can also be in reference to the past, present, or future. The subjects included in self-disclosure vary greatly from dry personal facts to deep emotions and feelings. It is predictable, however, what will be disclosed to whom and when. Disclosure increases as the length of the relationship increases. This is logical since as time passes, one typically learns more about one another. Someone who is a stranger will disclose less personal information than someone who is an acquaintance, best friend, or partner. Disclosure also varies according to the status of both parties in the relationship. A person who is seen as being lower status in the relationship will tend to disclose more to the person of higher status (Chaikin et al., 1974). Rarely will the higher status person disclose more information to the person of lower status. This is directly tied to the equality in the relationship. If the parties in the relationship are more equal, the amount disclosed tends to be more reciprocal, whereas in an unequal relationship the disclosure tends to be higher for one person than the other. Personality differences also account for differences in disclosure. Disclosure among people who are introverted tends to initially be less compared to those who are extroverted (Levesque et al., 2002). The present study examines differences in mother-daughter-sister relationships. Studying only females will ensure that there is an agreed upon norm of self-disclosure and the methods of communication will primarily be talking. The dynamics of the females in the direct family, and not peers, are examined because of the permanence of these relationships compared to the transient relationships that often exist outside of the family among peers. Only females within the family are the focus of the study because according to past research these seem to be the strongest and most influential relationships. The study examines how much daughters disclose to their mothers and, where applicable, how much they disclose to their sister. The first hypothesis is that if a sister is present there will be greater disclosure of personal information between sisters than with the mother. This is hypothesized since information on disclosure shows that differences in age and relationship status can have an effect on the amount of information disclosed. This is explained by the lack of reciprocity in these types of relationships, as well as the inequality. The second hypothesis is that if there is an absence of a sister there will be greater disclosure in mother-daughter relationships compared to those participants with a sister. This is hypothesized because mother-daughter relationships tend to be strong, and we predict the absence of a sister will make this relationship even stronger.


Eighty participants will volunteer to take part in the study. Half of the participants have no sister, whereas the other half have one or more sisters. All participants are female, over the age of eighteen, have parents who are still married, and have a living birth mother. The participant pool consists of Loyola University New Orleans undergraduate psychology students. All participants are treated under the ethical principles outlined by the American Psychology Association.

The materials consist of a questionnaire. The questionnaire measures the reported disclosure and closeness in mother-daughter relationships and sister-sister relationships. There are two different versions of the questionnaire. The questionnaire varies in length according to whether or not there is a sister in the family. Both questionnaires have seven preliminary questions about age, amount of siblings, sex and age of siblings, parental marital status, living situation, primary method of communication to mother, and how often communication occurs. One version of the questionnaire includes thirty-seven questions, along with the seven preliminary questions, that ask about the disclosure solely between mother and daughter. The second version of the questionnaire has eighty-three questions. The additional thirty-nine questions are the thirty-seven questions about disclosure between mother-daughter altered so that they pertain to disclosure between sisters, and two questions about the methods of communication with the sister and how often this occurs. Open-ended questions are used for age, number of siblings, age and sex of sibling, and amount of communication per month. Method of communication is measured by a closed-ended question. Possible methods of communication are in-person, phone, e-mail, or letters. All other questions measure disclosure and are closed-ended questions. The reported disclosure is measured using questions on the intimacy of parent-child relations, identity support, and instrumental communication. Topics of disclosed information include friends, money, spare time, drugs, smoking, dating, sex, secrets, aspirations, respect, and acceptance. The questions are ranked on a 5-point Likert scale, 1 being nothing, 5 being everything. An example question is: How much does your mother know about anyone you date? Rank this on a scale of 1 (Nothing) to 5 (Everything).

This study is a quasi-experimental design. There is no random assignment, which means there is no true independent variable. Our subject variables are has a sister or no sister, and our dependent variable is disclosure. Participants are recruited by the researchers from classes and student groups around campus, as well as through a posting on the psychology department human participant pool board. The participants are provided with information about the location and timings of the experimental sessions on the sign up sheet. Each participant may only be in the study once. When participants arrive at the study location, they sit and we provide a basic introduction to the study. They receive two copies of the informed consent form, both of which they sign, keep one for their records and turn in the other to the researchers. The participants are then handed the questionnaire. They are given as much time as they need to fill out the survey, and are instructed that they can leave if they feel any discomfort at any time during the survey. The participants are asked not to put their names anywhere on the survey. Once the survey is complete, or the participant decides not to complete it, they are debriefed and encouraged to ask questions. Any questions raised are addressed, and the participants are thanked and allowed to leave.

There were forty-seven participants, thirty (63.8%) with a sister and seventeen (36.2%) without a sister. All participants were between the ages eighteen and twenty-three, the majority being nineteen and twenty (M = 19.7, SD = 1.2). Table one highlights the means and standard deviations for those with a sister, compared to those without a sister. Several tests were run to assess support for the hypotheses. These include independent samples t-tests, a paired samples t-test, and Pearson’s correlation test. Our first hypothesis was that in the presence of a sister there would be more disclosure to the sister than the mother. The test run for this was a paired samples correlation test. It was found that H1 was not supported (t (29) = .44, n.s.). The results were not significant; therefore, there was no significant difference in disclosure of personal information between sisters than with the mother. Although the test did not prove H1, there were some interesting findings that hint at proving H1 shown in table three. There was support for more disclosure about the first time one tried a cigarette to sister than mother ( t (29) = -2.24, p < .05). There was also more information on one’s first kiss disclosed to the sister compared to the mother ( t (29) = -2.87, p < .05).It was further hypothesized that there would be more disclosure to the mother in the absence of a sister compared to those participants with a sister. This was not supported. There was no significant difference between those with a sister and those without a sister in disclosure to mother (t (45) = 0.43, n.s.). The data that shows “approaching significance” between the presence of a sister and the absence of a sister is shown in table two. It was that those with a sisters talked less to their mother (M = 25.6) than did those without a sister (M = 35.5), (t (42) = -1.66, p = .11). Further interesting findings regarding mother-daughter relationships was that those who trusted their mother more also fought with her less ( r = -.35, p < .05). Similarly, those who felt that their mother trusted them, talked with their mother more ( r = -.32, p < .05). Those who communicated more with their mother were also closer to her ( r = -.61, p < .05). Also, those who felt more positively about their mother were closer to her as well ( r = -.59, p < .05).Not only were there interesting findings about mother-daughter relationships, but there were some regarding sister relationships. Similar to mother-daughter, those who felt their sister trusted them more, fought less with her ( r = -.63, p < .05). Also, those who communicated more with their sister also fought with her less ( r = -.38, p < .05). Those who communicated more with their sister also perceived themselves to be closer to their sister ( r = -.51, p < .01). Another interesting finding was the more positive feelings one had for their sister, the less one fought with her ( r = -.64, p < .01).Some of the interesting findings on the participants as whole were that the majority of the participants lived off campus without their parents (51.1%), and used the phone as their primary method of communication (80.9%).

The first hypothesis was if a sister was present there would be greater disclosure to the sister than the mother, and the second hypothesis was in the absence of a sister, there would be greater disclosure to mothers than the disclosure to mothers of those participants with sisters. There was no support for hypothesis one and no support for hypothesis two. Even though the hypotheses were not supported, there were some interesting findings. There was a significant difference in the amount of information disclosed on the first cigarette ever tried, and the first kiss between mothers and sisters. There was support for more information on both of these topics being disclosed to the sister than the mother. It is interesting that more information was disclosed about the first kiss, but not about sex. It may be that as the daughter matures so does the relationship with the mother, opening up the topics of disclosure. This would lead to more personal information being disclosed, reducing the difference between amounts disclosed to sister compared to mother. Quatman and Swanson (2002) found that the more one discloses with another, the closer they are. The present study supports the past research conducted on disclosure. More information was disclosed to the mother than the sister, and there were overall higher reported rates of closeness with the mother than the sister. Even though these results did not support the hypotheses they could be useful for counselors in general, but especially for family counselors. Family counselors could use this information when trying to improve the dynamics of the family. The counselor could approximate the level of disclosure based on the maturity, or age of the patient. From this, it could be derived what type of information is being disclosed, and hence, the problems that may exist in mother-daughter relationships may be discovered.Information on mother-daughter relationships could also be useful for families to understand the dynamics of their relationships. It is important to examine these close family relationships in one’s life according to Floyd and Parks (1995) because, “of all the relationships one forms in a lifetime, it is often the close, personal ones by which a person measures the quality of life.” Although the information in the present study may be useful, there were several limitations. Power was lost for the analyses dealing with the absence of a sister since there were only seventeen participants. More participants in general would have increased the power of the study, especially since there were fewer than fifty participants, and may have found more support for the hypotheses. If there were more participants the findings that approached significance may have achieved significance. Another limitation of the study was that the survey was self-made. Had the survey been validated and reliable, the findings of the research may have been different. The questions in the survey could also be changed to improve the survey itself. The survey relied too heavily on non-comparative questions when it should have been narrowed down to comparative questions. Focusing the survey more on the content of information disclosed, and not having the survey be as broad and general, would help distinguish the disclosure of mother-daughter relationships to sister relationships. It would be helpful to change the questions on the survey to more comparative questions such as, “Do you tell your mother more about your sex life compared to what you tell your sister?” Changing the questions to “what do you tell” versus “what does your mother/sister know,” would help improve the survey for another reason. Having the survey ask about what one’s mother or sister knows, instead of what one tells her, may have had a profound effect on the results. Information about oneself can be obtained from another parent, sibling, friend, or acquaintance. It would therefore be better to have the questions ask about what one “tells” their mother or sister, rather than what they know. Not only did the survey itself have problems, but also the uneven distribution of participants may have affected the results. There was an unequal distribution of those who had sisters compared to those who did not. The findings may have turned out differently had the distribution not been as uneven with thirty participants who had sisters, and seventeen who did not have sisters. Therefore, evening out the distribution between subjects would also improve the study. It would be ideal to test these hypotheses again, but they may need revision. The hypotheses may not be correct, because as the length of the relationship increases so does the amount of disclosure (Chaikin & Derlega, 1974). The participants were at the age of young-adulthood, at which point the relationships has been in place for on average nineteen to twenty years. This may be the age at which mothers and daughters disclose just short of everything. If this is the case, further studies should look at the data separately among the various ages. It would be interesting to compare the amount of disclosure in mother-daughter relationships for freshmen in college compared to seniors in college. The interesting findings of the present research give hope to discovering the differences in information disclosed to sisters compared to mothers.

Bornstein, M.H., & Lamb, M.E. (Eds.). (1999). Developmental psychology: An advanced textbook. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.Chaikin, A. L., & Derlega, V. J. (1974). Self-disclosure. Morristown, NJ: General Learning Corporation.Cicirelli, V.G. (1995). Sibling relationships across the life span. New York, NY: Plenum Press.Deater-Deckard, K., Dunn, J., & Lussier, G. (2002). Sibling relationships and social-emotional adjustment in different family contexts. Social Development, 11(4), 571-590.Floyd, K., & Parks, M. R. (1995). Manifesting closeness in the interactions of peers: A look at siblings and friends. Communication Reports, 8(2), 69-77.Levesque, M.J., Steciuk, M., & Ledley, C. (2002). Self-disclosure patterns among well-aquainted individuals: Disclosers, confidants and unique relationships. Social Behavior and Personality, 30(6), 579-592.Moos, R.H. (1976). Human adaptation: Coping with life crises. D.C. Heath and Company.Quatman, T., & Swanson, C. (2002). Academic self-disclosure in adolescence. Genetic, Social & General Psychology Monographs, 128(1), 1-29.

Appendix A


Submitted 5/11/2004 12:02:03 PM
Last Edited 5/11/2004 12:21:47 PM
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