Perhaps because most societies place so much emphasis on the parent-child relationship, there is a relative lack of information on the relationships amongbrothers and sisters. Yet sibling relationships can play essential roles inour development as individuals and often bring just as much, if not more, joy, rage, pain, frustration, and pleasure. Relationships with brothers and sisters are typically also the longest that we will experience in our lives, since most siblings outlive parents and they begin earlier than those we establish with friends. The dynamics among brothers and sisters are so complex and sodiverse that they almost defy any attempt at scientific observation. Some scientists have made efforts to characterize sibling behavior and psychology and codify it into well-defined themes, but in general, these relationships remain understudied and, therefore, somewhat mysterious. The fact that sibling relationships vary widely according to children's status within the family (i.e., first born, youngest, etc.) and such other factors as family size, gender, and birth spacing, makes the topic daunting to many potential researchers.
The Oldest Rivalry
Many parents still believe in the myth that their children should naturally just get along, being loving, affectionate, and supportive of each other. However, the studies that do exist on siblings show that this natural amity is much more fiction than fact. The earliest research on relationships among siblings developed the common theme that brothers and sisters relate to each othermainly in a rivalrous way, competing for parental attention and status within the family unit. It is true that young siblings frequently fight with eachother, putting a strain on the entire family; in fact, family psychologists report that squabbling among siblings is one of the top concerns of their clients. Rivalry between siblings received so much attention initially because Sigmund Freud theorized in 1949 that this aspect of sibling relationships was akey to subsequent personality differences. Alfred Adler suggested in 1959 that the "dethronement" of the eldest child by the birth of a sibling is a trauma that initiates all sibling rivalry. Recent research, however, has begun tomove away from those polarized views to suggest that rivalry occurs in conjunction with other, separate dimensions of control, conflict, and friendliness. Some studies show that those siblings who exhibit the most rivalry are alsothe most likely to cooperate, be affectionate, share, and support each other.
Many studies agree that sibling rivalry is strongest between brothers-especially when they are close in age--and that the rivalry continues into adulthoodwith increasing ambivalence, competition, and jealousy. This effect is mostpronounced when the brothers have jobs of unequal status, for instance if oneis a Wall Street broker and the other a furniture salesman. One 1962 study even showed that male workers were happiest with their jobs when they felt that they were doing better than their brothers and least satisfied when they felt their brothers were in a "better" occupation. Another study in 1975 concluded that siblings use each other as "measuring sticks" to gauge how well theyare doing in life. Thus, when one sibling seems to pull ahead in occupational status, the relationship can become strained.
Rivalry is the basis of the vast majority of sibling interaction problems. Ina typical family, each sibling wants and will fight (in various ways) for the attention the others are receiving. Rivalry can become especially pronounced when one of the children has a disability, because the parents will have tospend more time with the disabled child. Small children do not understand this, since they only perceive another child, and will work even harder to attract more parental attention. Unless the parents are careful to provide structure and limits, this usually results in the disabled child receiving too little attention, adding to the child's disadvantages later in life.
Rivalry seems to occur least between brothers and sisters, while sisters often report becoming much closer as they grew into adulthood. However, these comparisons can be deceiving. Some child behaviorists suggest that they are, infact, false, and that people only have these impressions because boys' competition is more visible. Boys tend to fight physically, but girls tend to fightverbally and can be just as vicious with each other, if not more so. In allsibling configurations, reports of rivalrous feelings tend to diminish over time. Some scientists have postulated that this is mainly due to the infrequency with which most siblings see each other in this age of widespread travel and rapid job changes, and that if the siblings lived together once again, therivalry would quickly reemerge. Recent research suggests that competition with siblings may not fade in actuality, but that many people are reluctant toadmit this, believing such emotions to be immature or unworthy.
Children's natural selfishness lends itself to rivalry among siblings and isa normal component of all sibling relationships. Most is no cause for alarm:in fact, overreacting to such competition can do more harm than good, although ignoring it is not helpful either. According to several studies, most parents tend to react to conflict with passive noninterference, i.e., they do andsay nothing, or they simply tell the children to stop fighting. The latter approach, if it works at all, merely prevents the children from expressing andlearning about their emotions and can actually prolong their rivalry into adulthood. A more effective approach is for parents to model positive behavior in their adult relationships and to reward it in their children by making suchstatements as, "I'm so proud of you two for working together on that project," or "Seeing you share your toys with your sister makes me very happy." Also, family therapists recommend that parents sit down with their children and act as a mediator in competition-triggered quarrels.
Rivalry among siblings has its place in the natural order of things. Many experts regard it as providing a sort of training ground for what people can expect to experience as they grow into adolescence and adulthood. Competition ishealthy among siblings when each has the opportunity to do well in differentareas. For example, parents could encourage one child to learn how to play the clarinet and the other could take piano lessons. Too much rivalry or the continual dominance of one child can result in bitterness, fighting, refusal to share, toy stealing, name-calling, and other exhibitions of anger and frustration. Likewise, experts warn, one-sided sibling rivalry, in which one childperpetually attacks the other, is a sign of an imbalance that must be addressed. Parents cannot expect to eliminate all rivalry from their children's relationships, but should take steps to limit jealousy and excessive competition. Child psychologists recommend a specific course of action to deal with thisissue.
What Parents Can Do to Help
First, parents should balance the responsibilities of the siblings. Sometimes--particularly in this age of two-income families and rising divorce rates--an older child will be elevated to the level of surrogate parent. This is an especially poor idea if the children are close in age. While it is natural toexpect an older child to serve as a leader and role model, all children, no matter their ages, should get some experience in making decisions, being in charge, and having responsibility. Also, if one child has authority over another, he or she may use that dominance to achieve selfish ends, which only serves to worsen the sibling rivalry problems. Next, parents should make sure to recognize siblings as individuals. Rather than comparing siblings' accomplishments, thus creating more intense rivalry and potential psychological damage in children who have a harder time achieving, parents should take care to treat each child as a separate person with his or her own unique, valuable skills. Likewise, it is important that parents pay attention and reward every one of a child's accomplishments and do the same--on an equal basis--for any siblings. Last, experts agree that, ideally, each sibling should have equal accessto and time with the parent or parents.
Other experts make a different set of recommendations with the same goal (fostering positive social relations among siblings) in mind. For instance, parents should establish reasonable expectations about their children's interactions. Children do not naturally play together--it is a learned behavior that tends to appear at about age three. Therefore, parents should not expect siblings to spend all of their time together. An appropriate amount of time for preschoolers to interact is about 10-12 minutes, while school-age kids might beable to handle 10-30 minutes, and adolescents might feel comfortable with 15-60 minutes. Parents should also provide toys and activities that foster and lead to positive interaction. Blocks, balls, and moving toys seem to bring about more interaction, for instance, than crayons, stuffed animals, or puzzles.In addition, the play environment is critical: for young children, there should be no distractions or interruptions such as television, a multitude of toys and other objects, or people wandering through the area. Focus should be on a few activities and each other. Lastly, parents should praise the siblingsfor their positive interaction to reinforce and reward these prosocial behaviors.
In their effort to understand sibling relationships, researchers have isolated two areas that they believe can provide a degree of predictability in the examination of these complex relationships. One of these areas, which is actually based on centuries-old anecdotal evidence, is known as "birth order." Many behavioral theories center on the principle that the first child born to acouple will often have certain characteristics in relation to subsequent children. Perhaps the most commonly observed tendency of first-born children is to direct and lead the activity and interaction of later-borns. First-born children are also more likely to engage in both positive and negative social behaviors and teaching behaviors, whereas second-born children more often follow, imitate, and adopt the abandoned toys of the first-born.
Although almost everyone with an older brother or sister can tell stories about how badly their elder sibling treated them at one time or another, there is also a great deal of benefit that younger children derive from this relationship. One study showed, for instance, that three year olds were much more likely to explore new territory in the company of their older siblings, as opposed to when they were with unfamiliar older children. In addition, other studies have suggested that younger siblings typically respond positively to theteaching efforts of their elder brothers or sisters. One study in 1972 even indicated that young children learn to perform a task more effectively when their older siblings (especially sisters) teach them how, as opposed to an unrelated friend.
There seem to be other personality traits that match family position (birth order), although these are very general attempts to categorize and understandhuman behavior and can be affected by many dynamics within the family. Some degree of accuracy may be accorded the codification of these characteristics,however, since 21 of 23 U.S. astronauts so far have been "typical" high-achieving, perfectionist first-borns. First-borns are also supposedly more likelyto be goal setters, harder working, responsible, detail oriented, rule keepers, determined, and organized. In contrast, the middle child is often perceived as more balanced. Because of their interactions with both older and youngersiblings, middle children tend to be flexible, competitive, generous, social, diplomatic, and peacemakers. They are frequently good mediators and excellent team players, negotiators, and compromisers. Many managers and leaders aremiddle-born children. The youngest child in a family, the last-born, is frequently more outgoing, uncomplicated, affectionate, people oriented, and absent-minded. Current beliefs are that last-borns seem more likely to be risk takers, creative, and humorous, and that they more often question authority. Last-borns frequently find themselves comfortable and productive in sales or creative positions.
The spacing of births also seems to be an important aspect of how siblings relate to each other. Again, like the study of birth order, theories about birth spacing and sibling relationships are merely an effort to understand humanbehavior and not everyone agrees that they are valuable. However, most experts seem to concur that siblings born more than three years apart are less affected by each other than those born closer together, and that those born threeor less years apart are more likely to be deeply affected by each other, whether positively, negatively, or both. Some observers believe that an age gapof two years results in the most conflict between siblings because the olderchild has difficulty establishing his or her separation from the new sibling.One study in 1980 reported that in families with five closely spaced siblings, there was less interest in school, worse relations among each other, and worse relations with the family overall than in families with five widely spaced siblings. The teaching role of older siblings also seems to be most effective and positive when they are at least four years older than the younger brother or sister. There is no evidence, however, that the spacing of births affects children's intelligence, although shortly spaced births in a family could be detrimental to the nurturing and attention that foster full realizationof intellectual potential.
Adjusting to a New Sibling
The birth of a new sibling is usually a traumatic (or at least stressful) event in a formerly only-child's life. As mentioned earlier, the older child often experiences this event as a sort of coup, an effort to move him or her outof the spotlight of his parents' doting attention and to grab a share of resources previously dedicated solely to the first-born. Often, the birth will trigger an entirely new course of thought in the older child, prompting him towonder where babies come from and whether he came from there, too. A new brother or sister may also cause the first-born to start comparing him- or herself to the baby, fostering the development of self-understanding, and can makea first-born aware of the divisions between children and parents, and malesand females. Also, the first-born's parents might begin to encourage the child to become a little more independent to give them more energy to spend on the newborn. Some researchers suggest that the most effective way to assure a first-born child's positive adjustment to a sibling's birth is see that the older child has a best friend at the time the newborn arrives. This close relationship facilitates the fantasy play that is so beneficial for children's emotional lives and provides a needed ally against the perceived interloper. This friendship may be even more important than the older child's relationship with his or her mother at this juncture.
The Step-Sibling Question
One sibling-related issue that has become commonplace since the 1980s is step-siblings. With the divorce rate at about 50 percent, more and more childrenare finding themselves first split apart from a father or mother and then, inmany cases, thrown abruptly together with a new set of strangers who, by law, have become their brothers and sisters. The tendency in this situation is for children to stick close to their biological parent and siblings. If the newlyweds' sets of children are very different in age, this tends to be less ofan issue, since they most likely would not interact with each other much, but if they are within 10 years in age, it can be extremely difficult for everyone to adjust. Most family counselors agree that the new siblings' process ofmeeting, getting comfortable, and (hopefully) becoming friendly with each other should not be rushed. Some counsel parents to avoid making the new siblings feel as though they have to love or like each other. Rather, they must take time to help the children learn about each others' interests by talking during family dinners, starting a family newspaper, discussing favorite hobbiesor games, or just spending time together in a warm, relaxed atmosphere. parents should not expect the children to interact with each other constantly or always in a positive manner. Developing healthy relationships takes time, so new step-siblings should receive support and understanding, not pressure.
The Up and Downs of Disabled Siblings
In families with disabled children, siblings face special challenges, but canreap special rewards as well. Often, their attitude toward the disabled brother or sister will be highly influenced by the parents' own attitudes. In thescientific literature on siblings with disabilities, there are many examplesof negative effects on healthy siblings. For instance, it has been noted that elder sisters in particular often receive more than their fair share of theburden of taking care of a disabled sibling. However, parents can neutralizethe resentment and tension that frequently accompany such disproportionate treatment by giving the older child increased attention or praise. Disabled siblings also tend, despite their age, to take the role of youngest child, which can lead to upheavals and tension in the established order of the family. Likewise, healthy siblings often feel guilty that they are not disabled, whilesimultaneously feeling neglected because the parents need to spend more timewith the disabled child. However, the presence of and interaction with a disabled sibling has also been shown to produce such positive effects as increased tolerance for people's differences; increased confidence, responsibility,and maturity; and more sympathy for and understanding of people with disabilities.
The modern tendency to work and live far from our birthplaces frequently takes us hundreds or thousands of miles away from our brothers and sisters. However, most people make at least a minimal effort to stay in contact with the people who share our genetic and personal histories intimately. Despite their fighting and rivalry as children, siblings sometimes grow closer with age andcome to realize the benefits of having someone in their lives who remembers their most important loves, losses, and achievements.