Gillian Ragsdale

Gillian Ragsdale Ph.D.


He Ain't Heavy...or Is He?

Siblings can bring out the best and the worst in each other.

Posted Dec 13, 2012


Ed and Dave Milliband

Ed and Dave Milliband

Sitting in the garden with my neighbors while their four children and our daughter enthusiastically rearrange the inside of the house their father asked me to write something about empathy between siblings. There’s a common belief that having siblings promotes the development of empathy by constantly having to deal with the thoughts and feelings of these others. Is it that simple, I wonder? In what ways does having siblings shape the way we deal with people generally?

The birth of the first sibling is generally anticipated as being a major crisis for the child who has hitherto gloried in their parents’ undivided attention. But a review of 30 studies on this found no such consensus. Basically, it all depends—on timing, other events, the personality and behavior of the particular parents and child, and other developmental changes.

Growing up, the relationship between the siblings is partly determined by the relationships with the parents. The closer the bond between parent and child—the more empathy the siblings will have for each other. The more verbal aggression between parent and child—the less empathy there is between siblings.

Being a sibling matters more to some siblings than others. The influence of being biologically related is greater for girls than boys and sibling bonds are greater between same sex siblings. With more and more blended families having half and step siblings, girls tend to give these relationships more weight than boys. Sounds as though the sisters are holding the family together—yet at the same time—both sisters and brothers blame sisters for competition and strife between siblings. So sisters can glue the family together—but they can also divide and rule.

Siblings can be close but some siblings may be so close that their powers of empathy are not really tested. For example, identical twins are not as good at reading the emotions of others as non-identical twins or non-twin siblings. Perhaps the relationship between identical twins is usually so close that the emotional landscape of outsiders becomes another country.

There is also a dark side to sibling life: sibling aggression is the most common form of family violence. Krienert et al: ‘’Parents often minimize sibling violence, even when the behavior, were it not committed by a sibling, would without question meet the elements of an officially recognized crime.‘’ Siblings are more likely to be victims of an older brother but while boys tend to push younger sibs around, girls are more likely to bully older sibs. While the good news is that the incidence of violence decreases with age the bad news is that severity increases and although boys are more prone to violence sisters tend inflict more serious injuries.

Although the family can provide a protective environment that tolerates less socially attractive traits this may backfire when dealing with the wider world of school peers. Ensor et al found antisocial behavior between siblings showed no change as they started school and was especially high for brothers. A long-term pattern of hostile behavior to siblings predicted bullying and refusal to share with other children.

So all in all when it comes to sibling relationships —when it’s good, it’s really good – and when it’s bad—it’s really awful. A sibling might risk their lives to pull the others from a burning house yet a petty squabble could have fatal consequences. I wonder if kids who are just not people-people find having siblings to be a form of torture. And as the saying goes: you don’t get to choose your family. A family behind closed doors is a law to itself, with rules and behaviors that might seem bizarre or unacceptable to outsiders. In that case, is it better to share that world with a sibling or does that only further the illusion of normality?

My own daughter has frequently requested a sibling—but she’s very specific. A nice little sister that likes to play the same fairy games that she does. Telling her that a sibling might very well have been a brother tends to cool her enthusiasm.


About the Author

Gillian Ragsdale

Gillian Ragsdale, Ph.D. is an Associate Lecturer in biological psychology with the Open University, in the U.K.

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