Siblings

For most people sibling relations last longer than any other type of relations throughout their lives. There are four main areas of research on siblings - the evolvement of their relationship across the life span; connections between sibling relations and other relationships within the family; influence of siblings on the individual development and reasons for differences among siblings. Sibling relationships start even earlier than the arrival of the second child, when parents discuss the expected baby. After the birth, siblings develop complex relationships that can be warm and supportive or hostile and conflicting.

Research shows that including the firstborn child in the care of the baby and treating the baby as a person like the older child can help form a positive sibling relationship. As siblings grow up social support becomes an increasingly important function of their relationship. Childhood rivalries, however, are also likely to reappear when siblings communicate extensively as adults. Although parents are considered to be the most important figures in the life of children siblings play a significant role as well. Older siblings can be playmates, teachers or role models and they can provide advice, therapy or friendship. Common roles for younger siblings include those of advice seekers but they can be competitors too.

Another factor of importance to the lives of siblings is the marital relationship between their parents. Research has shown that conflicts between parents can affect the ability of siblings to develop a positive relationship. On the other hand, hardships like a divorce or death of a parent may bring siblings together and make them bond more closely to each other. Furthermore, research into step-families has demonstrated that divorce and remarriage often have a negative effect on sibling relationships.

Sibling relationships also have an important influence on individual development and general family functioning. Siblings can affect each other as well as other family members by demonstrating positive behavior or by acting in a hostile way. Studies among ethnically diverse families indicate that siblings tend to play an increasingly important role in family life and individual development. A sibling's illness or disability has also been proven to produce negative effects on individual development and sibling relationships.

There are numerous examples of substantial differences in the behavior of siblings who were raised in the same family. The debate over the reasons for such differences goes in two main directions: the genetic structure of each person called nature and the aggregate of shared family experiences like parenting and other social behavior know as nurture. Comparisons between twins, full siblings and adoptive siblings are used by behavior genetics to illustrate individual similarities and differences in personality and behavior. Identical twins (monozygotic or conceived from one egg and one sperm) are easily perceived as similar since they share 100 percent of their genetic material. Therefore differences in their behavior should be the result of environmental influences like relations with parents and friends. However, since identical twins arrive in the family simultaneously, it may be presumed that their environment would be similar in many aspects. On the other hand, despite the fact that they also arrive at the same time, fraternal twins (dizygotic or conceived from two eggs and two sperm) share only about 50 percent of their genes and may not be necessarily the same sex. In this case there are fewer similarities in terms of both genetic structure and social environment, so differences in character and behavior are more likely to appear than with identical twins.

Full siblings, who have the same biological parents, not only share just about 50 percent of their genetic material, but also arrive in the family at different times. Here differences in development may be substantial although the siblings share more or less the same family experiences. With half siblings, who share only one parent, differences may be even bigger due to the fact that they share less genetic material. The fact that siblings in the same family might be so different from each other can be further explained by differential parental treatment. The need for a differentiated approach to siblings in relation to their individual characteristics like age, sex or temperament has been widely recognized. If the parents have favorites, however, this can be perceived as unfair treatment by the neglected siblings and may lead to the development of negative attitudes. Research has indicated that differential parental treatment may not only lead to worsening sibling relations and behavior problems but it can also cause conflicts in the overall family relations as well.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Siblings: Brothers and Sisters in American History
C. Dallett Hemphill.
Oxford University Press, 2011
The Sibling Bond
Stephen P. Bank; Michael D. Kahn.
Basic Books, 1997
Sibling Relationships: Their Nature and Significance across the Lifespan
Michael E. Lamb; Brian Sutton-Smith.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1982
Children's Sibling Relationships: Developmental and Clinical Issues
Frits Boer; Judy Dunn.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1992
Separate Lives: Why Siblings Are So Different
Judy Dunn; Robert Plomin.
Basic Books, 1990
Separate Social Worlds of Siblings: The Impact of Nonshared Environment on Development
E. Mavis Hetherington; David Reiss; Robert Plomin.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994
Sibling Loss
Joanna H. Fanos.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996
What about Me? Growing Up with a Developmentally Disabled Sibling
Bryna Siegel; Stuart Silverstein.
Plenum Press, 1994
Continuity and Change in Family Relations: Theory, Methods, and Empirical Findings
Rand D. Conger; Frederick O. Lorenz; K. A. S. Wickrama.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Part IV "Examining Sibling Relationships over Time"
Family Communication
Chris Segrin; Jeanne Flora.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Eight "Sibling and Extended Family Relationships"
Connecting Children: Care and Family Life in Later Childhood
Julia Brannen; Ellen Heptinstall; Kalwant Bhopal.
Routledge/Falmer, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "The Importance of Siblings"
Childhood and Adolescence: Cross-Cultural Perspectives and Applications
Uwe P. Gielen; Jaipaul Roopnarine.
Praeger, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Part III "Two Themes in Children's Lives: Gender Roles and Siblings"
Retrospect and Prospect in the Psychological Study of Families
James P. McHale; Wendy S. Grolnick.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Retrospect and Prospect in the Psychological Study of Sibling Relationships"
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