Siblings and Sibling Relationships

views updated


Although psychologists first began to study siblings and their relationships during the nineteenth century, it was not until the late twentieth century when they began to focus on the family related features of sibling relationships. Early research was devoted to examining the effects of siblings' age spacing and birth order. Scientists found, however, that these had little to do with children's emotional and social development. During the 1980s and 1990s, psychologists became more interested in the family as a unit. This encouraged them to study the ways in which brothers and sisters influence each other's development and their families' well-being, as well as the family's influence on sibling relationships.

Parents, as well as scientists, know that sibling relationships can either enhance or disrupt family harmony and child development. For a long time, parents have named conflict between siblings as one of the most common and persistent problems that they encounter in rearing their children. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, this issue is particularly important for several reasons. First, more parents are working full-time. Because of this, many siblings care for their younger brothers and sisters before and after school. If siblings in this situation fight frequently, the younger children are not likely to receive the kind of care that they need. Second, sibling relationships tend to remain the same throughout life. Brothers and sisters who get along well as children are likely to continue to have a positive relationship when they are adolescents and adults. On the other hand, sibling rivalry that started in childhood can continue well into adulthood and result in a distant relationship between the siblings. Given the extent to which siblings can support each other emotionally, it is important to understand the foundations of sibling relationship quality.

Individual Siblings' Temperaments

Personal characteristics of the children involved in a sibling relationship are important in determining the kind of relationship that they will have. One of the most thoroughly studied characteristics is temperament, which is defined as the style of behavior that a person uses when relating to other people or to the surrounding environment. It develops early in life, is at least partly determined by a person's genetic makeup, and remains essentially the same across the lifespan. Although siblings share a considerable part of their genetic makeup, children in the same family can have quite different temperaments. Some children are calm and easygoing, whereas others are impatient and easily upset. Not surprisingly, easygoing children experience less conflict in their sibling relationships than impatient children do. When one sibling is easygoing and another is impatient, the kind of relationship that they have depends on which sibling has the easygoing temperament. Sibling relationships run more smoothly when the easygoing sibling is older than the impatient one, because older children usually take charge of the situation when they are with their younger siblings.

Skills That Siblings Learn from One Another

This taking charge helps both siblings develop important life skills. Children's development is enhanced when they interact with people who occupy a variety of roles. Observations of siblings' everyday behavior with one another have revealed that older siblings act as teachers, managers, and helpers when playing with their younger brothers and sisters, and the younger siblings assume the corresponding learner, managee, and helpee roles. In such situations, siblings learn not only about their own roles but also about the corresponding ones.

Cooperation and a general sense of goodwill between siblings certainly can enhance children's development. As in any close relationship, though, conflict is bound to arise. This conflict need not be damaging to the relationship. It can provide an opportunity for siblings to vent their emotions, express their feelings, and practice open communication. Both conflict and friendliness between siblings help children learn to consider other people's feelings, needs, and beliefs. Both kinds of behavior may be necessary to give children a variety of experiences in learning to deal with others. A balance of friendliness and conflict in sibling relationships can provide a unique opportunity for children to develop social and behavioral skills that will enable them to manage anger and disagreements and provide help and comfort to others. Learning these skills in their relationships with their siblings helps children form positive relationships with their friends and adjust well to the social demands that they encounter in school.

Parents' Guidance and Sibling Conflict

The ways in which parents handle their children's disagreements and quarrels is an important means through which they help siblings form positive relationships with one another. With young children, parents must usually intervene in siblings' arguments to prevent older siblings from taking advantage of younger ones. This intervention is most effective when parents talk with the children about the problem, discuss the children's feelings and needs, explain their own feelings about the issues, and enforce rules for the children's treatment of one another. For siblings in middle childhood and adolescence, parents' consistent enforcement of rules that emphasize equality and fairness helps siblings develop respect for one another as they work out their own disagreements. Conflict in sibling relationships also decreases when parents treat their children impartially and keep the discussion friendly when talking with their children about sibling relationship problems.

Sibling Relationships in the Family System

Siblings and the other members of the family are part of a system in which one person's behavior affects everyone else. Likewise, relationships between some family members can influence relationships between other members. For example, the relationship between a mother and father can affect the children's relationships with one another. Psychologists who study children's responses to conflict between their parents have found that the parents' anger at one another causes negative emotional reactions in the children, who often direct these reactions toward others. The result is often sibling relationships in which children exchange little positive behavior and much negative behavior. This, however, is not always the case. Some older siblings respond to their parents' fights by becoming more caring and kind toward their younger brothers and sisters, to protect them from the distress arising from the adults' conflict. Parents' individual problems can also affect sibling relationships by influencing individual children's emotional states. The unpleasant feelings that arise from dealing with a depressed or hostile parent may make it more difficult for children to behave pleasantly toward their brothers and sisters.

Psychologists have found that conflict between parents and parents' personal problems influence sibling relationships through parent-child relationships. If parents' problems lead them to behave in a hostile manner toward their children, sibling relationships will be disrupted. If parents do not become hostile, however, marital problems and parental depression are far less likely to affect sibling relationship quality. The same is true for parents' relationships with impatient children. Parents who are able to form positive relationships with such children, even though the children's temperaments make it difficult to deal with them, may be able to smooth out the problems these children experience in their sibling relationships. Children with difficult temperaments who experience positive relationships with their parents will learn how to treat others positively, including their siblings.

When parents' relationships with their children are not equally positive, though, sibling relationships can be affected negatively. Ever since Sigmund Freud formulated his theories about sibling rivalry, psychologists have found that discrepancies in parents' treatment of their children create negative feelings between siblings. This is particularly likely to happen when parents direct unequal amounts of intrusiveness, responsiveness, positive emotions, and negative emotions toward their children, and when they discipline one child more than another for the same behavior. Sensitive parenting, however, often requires that children in the same family be treated differently. Children of different ages have different needs related to their stages of development, and children with different temperaments need their parents to respond to them in ways that best suit the children's personalities. Treating siblings differently is most likely to affect their relationships negatively when the children interpret their parents' behavior as a sign that their parents are less concerned about them, or that they are less worthy of love, than their brothers and sisters. Children are less likely to draw such conclusions when parents give each child the attention and nurturing that he or she needs.


Sibling relationships are, in and of themselves, important as children relate to one another and influence the social world in which they grow and develop. The social and psychological skills that children gain through sibling interactions are also useful throughout their lives in a wide variety of other social relationships. Children's personalities can have positive or negative influences on the relationships that they develop with their siblings. Parents can also influence the nature of sibling relationships, both through direct guidance and through the types of relationships that they form with each other and with each of their children.



Brody, Gene H., ed. Sibling Relationships: Their Causes and Consequences. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1996.

Brody, Gene H. "Sibling Relationship Quality: Its Causes and Consequences." Annual Review of Psychology 49 (1998):1-24.

Brody, Gene H., Zolinda Stoneman, and J. Kelly McCoy. "Contributions of Family Relationships and Child Temperaments to Longitudinal Variations in Sibling Relationship Quality and Sibling Relationship Styles." Journal of Family Psychology 8 (1994):274-286.

Brody, Gene H., Zolinda Stoneman, and J. Kelly McCoy. "Fore-casting Sibling Relationships in Early Adolescence from Child Temperaments and Family Processes in Middle Childhood." Child Development 65 (1994):771-784.

Bronfenbrenner, Urie. The Ecology of Human Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Cummings, E. Mark, and Donna Smith. "The Impact of Anger between Adults on Siblings' Emotions and Behavior." Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 25 (1989):63-74.

Dunn, Judy, and Carol Kendrick. Siblings: Love, Envy, and Understanding. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Hetherington, E. Mavis. "Parents, Children, and Siblings Six Years After Divorce." In Robert A. Hinde and Joan Stevenson-Hinde eds., Relationships within Families: Mutual Influences. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Howe, Nina, and Hildy S. Ross. "Socialization, Perspective-Taking, and the Sibling Relationship." Developmental Psychology 26 (1990):160-165.

MacKinnon, Carol E. "An Observational Investigation of Sibling Interactions in Married and Divorced Families." Developmental Psychology 25 (1989):36-44.

Stocker, Clare, Judy Dunn, and Robert Plomin. "Sibling Relationships: Links with Child Temperament, Maternal Behavior, and Family Structure." Child Development 60 (1989):715-727.

Gene H.Brody