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Sparring Sibs

Why we reap benefits from squabbling with our brothers and sisters.

Are you and your siblings all grown up—and still squabbling? You may be getting a lot out of it, contends Victoria Hilkevitch Bedford, Ph.D., of the University of Indianapolis. The 40 subjects in Bedford's long-term study reported many ways in which their bickering, both as children and as adults, continued to benefit them: it taught some of them how to quell disagreements, and others how to stand up for themselves.

Sibling rivalry helps us even as adults, Bedford believes, because we don't stop changing once childhood is over. "We know that when we're children, siblings help us establish our identities," says Bedford. "But as adults, we continue to try to figure out who we are, and relations with siblings play a role in that process." Bedford cautions that her findings aren't grounds for encouraging sibling rivalry, but rather for trying to understand how it works. "We need to find out for whom and under what circumstances conflict is productive," she says.

Studies of children suggest that the benefits of sibling rivalry are greatest when the conflict is not overwhelming, when the family is able to talk about emotions, and when there is warmth as well as tension in the relationship. But Bedford's study of adults identified another, darker factor: those who got the most out of conflict were especially healthy, affluent, and well-educated—and had siblings who were relatively unsuccessful. Apparently, even grown-up siblings enjoy coming out on top.