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Navigating Sibling Relationships

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Sibling relationships are important. While friendships come and go, you’re stuck with your siblings. This relationship is oftentimes one of the longest relationships in a person’s life. You can rarely get away with being fake or phony when with siblings. You grow up in the same environment, share the same parents, and share common memories and similar experiences. You are who you are because of this shared history, which makes the relationship unique and invaluable.

The Effect of Siblings on Development

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The presence of siblings in the home affects a child's development, and it does not have to do with birth order. Having a sibling, for example, affects a child’s social skills, and a child with a sister or brother can often be more agreeable and sympathetic. Some research indicates that having a sibling in adulthood helps alleviate depression and anxiety. People are altogether happier when they have positive sibling relationships.

How does the birth of a sibling affect a child emotionally?

When a new baby arrives, don’t be shocked if a child regresses in behavior. This can include infantile conduct such as whining, kicking, screaming, hitting, even bedwetting. Jealousy is normal. Who wouldn’t feel that way? All your attention has landed on the new baby. Psychologists advise that you involve your older child as much as possible; let them help care for the baby. Of course, the help that they provide depends on their age and ability.

How can I help my older child feel better about a new sibling?

It is important to set aside time with the older child or children; every child needs such one-on-one time. Encourage older children to talk about their feelings and conflicts and assure them that they can have these feelings and still be a wonderful older sibling. If they express negative feelings, acknowledge that. Never deny or discount your child’s feelings.

The Truth About Birth Order

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Many theories have been proposed about the influence of siblings, and stereotypes are aplenty. The firstborn child is supposedly more conscientious and successful; the middle child is presumably excluded and embittered; the youngest is expected to be more social and persuasive. However, these characteristics don’t seem to hold up in research. Various studies have found that birth order has no bearing on a person’s predisposition.

Does birth order affect personality?

Research that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at a number of studies and found no association of birth order on personality. The firstborn child is not necessarily the achiever, the middle born is not necessarily the peacemaker, and the last born is not necessarily the manipulator.

Is the oldest child smarter than later born siblings?

There's evidence that firstborns have slightly higher IQs than their younger siblings. Some researchers attribute this to parental age at the time of birth, while others contend that firstborns received more resources and attention from parents during important developmental stages. Other than this finding, there is no consistent evidence that firstborns, middle children, or last-borns reliably carry any particular traits whatsoever. 

Sibling Rivalry Is Normal

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Discord between siblings is normal. The notion of the cheery harmonious family that never fights is a misnomer. Conflict can come in many forms, 85 percent of siblings are verbally aggressive, 74 percent push and shove, and 40 percent are physically aggressive, which can include kicking, punching, and biting. Among adult siblings, studies show that roughly half speak to or see one another about once a month; the other half communicate less frequently or not at all, and they are more likely to engage in competition and rivalry. The culture idealizes the potential of loving sibling relationships—but the reality often falls short.

When are children aware of unfair treatment from parents?

Before children are a year old, they exhibit a sophisticated social understanding. They are sensitive to differences in their parents’ affection, warmth, pride, attention, and discipline. They are attuned to the emotional exchanges going on around them. They are quick to pick up differential treatment by parents. They are attuned to whether the treatment they or their siblings get is fair or unfair.

At what age does rivalry start?

Rivalry may start as early as age 3. At this age, children have a sophisticated grasp of how to use social rules. They can evaluate themselves in relation to their siblings and possess the developmental skills necessary to adapt to frustrating circumstances and relationships in the family. They may even have the drive to adapt and get along with a sibling whose goals and interests may be different from their own.

The Favorite Child

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A large proportion of parents consistently favor one child over another. This favoritism can manifest in different ways: more time spent with one child, more affection given, more privileges, less discipline, or, the worst scenarios, less abuse. Some favoritism is fair, the arrival of a newborn or caring for an ill or disabled sibling. Some favoritism is unfair, in patriarchal cultures, parents simply favor boys over girls, for example. Favoritism is a common reason for sibling resentment. A child who feels unfavored will direct his anger toward his sibling, not to the parent showing favoritism.

Do parents favor girls over boys?

A child's personality and behavior can affect how parents treat them. Parents behave more affectionately toward children who are pleasant and affectionate, and they direct more discipline toward children who act out or engage in unruly or deviant behavior. Because girls tend to be warmer and less aggressive than boys, parents are more likely to favor daughters over sons, though this is not the case in patriarchal cultures.

Does stress impact how parents favor and treat children?

Favoritism is also more likely when parents are under stress; this can include everything from marital problems to financial difficulties. Parents may be unable to inhibit their true feelings or monitor their behavior to be sure they are being fair to all children. Some researchers argue that when emotional or material resources are limited, parents will favor children who have the most potential to thrive and reproduce.


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