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Sibling Relationships

Sibling Relationships Across The Life Span

In the United States, sibling relationships are dynamic and vary depending on the stage in the life cycle; they are no less important during old age than when children are toddlers or adolescents. However, what one expects from and what one gives to a sibling in old age is different from expectations and exchanges at earlier ages.

Research on infant and preschool siblings. There is growing recognition that siblings play potentially important roles in socializing each other's social, emotional, and cognitive development. One example of the effects of this socialization role is the finding that older siblings are not as accommodating to young children as adults are and thus encourage the development of pragmatic skills in their younger siblings. In other words, older siblings will make younger children perform such tasks as tying their own shoes and getting their own bowl of ice cream.

Psychologists studying the interaction patterns of preschool children and their infant siblings report that the arrival of a newborn in the family has immediate consequences for older siblings' adjustment and behavior. Bed-wetting, withdrawal, aggressiveness, dependency, and anxiety are among the most problematic behaviors reported in these studies (Dunn 1995). Positive roles for older siblings include the opportunity to learn caretaking skills and serving as models for appropriate social and cultural behaviors. Numerous studies find that young siblings benefit from observing and imitating their older brothers and sisters. This happens because older siblings "engage in activities during interaction that are within the scope of actions that the younger child is capable of reproducing immediately or slightly after observation" (Zukow 1989, p. 85).

Sometime between their third and fourth year, older siblings begin to take a more active interest in younger siblings, and brothers and sisters become both more effective companions and antagonists at this age. Older siblings demonstrate a clear understanding of how to provoke and annoy a younger child as early as age two. Countering this negative tendency is an increasing interest in alleviating the distress of others during the second year. There is some evidence that the way mothers talk to an older sibling about a newborn child is associated with the quality of the behavior between the children over time (Dunn 1995). Children become increasingly more involved with their older siblings during the preschool years.

Sibling relationships in middle childhood. American children become more egalitarian during the middle childhood years. When fifth- and sixth-grade children were asked about the relationship with their siblings, the quality noted most was companionship. This was followed by antagonism, admiration of sibling, and quarreling (Furman et al. 1989). These positive and negative qualities of the relationship were independent of one another, illustrating the ambivalence and complexity of sibling interaction. Younger siblings report feeling more affection, closeness, and respect for older siblings than the reverse.

Brothers and sisters tend to influence each other's gender role development. Boys with sisters score higher on expressiveness than boys with brothers, and girls with brothers score higher on competitiveness and assertiveness (Sulloway 1996). Boys with only brothers are reported as being more violent than boys with sisters (Straus, Gelles, and Steinmetz 1980).

A study of the relation between parental behaviors and sibling behaviors found that negative Relationships between sisters are reported to be closer than those between brothers and those between a brother and a sister. The two girls pictured are sisters, living in Cambodia. DAN LAMONT/CORBIS parental care (hostile/detached behavior) was associated with sibling quarreling/antagonism among children in middle childhood. Differential treatment by mothers is associated with more conflicted and hostile sibling relationships (Boer, Goedhart, and Treffers 1992).

Adult sibling relationships. A large majority (about 80%) of adult Americans have at least one living brother or sister (Connidis and Campbell 1995). Because of their shared past, and because they are typically close in age, siblings are potential sources of financial, physical, emotional, and psychological support and assistance in old age. Some of the topics related to adult siblings that have been investigated include the frequency of contact, feelings of solidarity and closeness, use of siblings as confidants, and types of support and assistance exchanged.

Those who study adult sibling relationships report four consistent findings. First, sibling contact and closeness is greater between sisters than in brother-brother or brother-sister combinations. Overall, women are more likely to be the ones to initiate and maintain kin ties, including those with siblings. Second, geographic proximity is a key factor in predicting the extent of adult sibling interaction. When siblings live close to one another they maintain contact, exchange goods and services, and support one another to a greater degree than when they live apart. Third, there is a curvilinear relationship between age and feelings of closeness, contact, and meaningfulness of the sibling tie. Relations are close during early and middle childhood, they decrease slightly during adolescence and middle age, and increase as individuals near the end of the life cycle. Almost two-thirds of adults report that they are close to their grown-up siblings and 78 percent feel they get along well with them (Cicirelli 1991). Fourth, sibling ties appear to be more salient for the unmarried and childless than for those who are currently married and those with children (Campbell, Connidis, and Davies 1999; White 2001).

In the process of studying sibling relationships, when methodological analyses are complex and include or control for the large variety of factors that influence adult sibling interaction (marital status, presence and number of children, number of siblings, income and educational status, age, presence of living parents, and race/ethnicity), the complexity of sibling interaction becomes evident. For example, one longitudinal study reported that giving and receiving help and assistance increasingly declined between the ages of twenty and seventy, then took an upturn—for siblings living close to one another. No upturn was evident for those who lived twenty-six miles away or further. When siblings lived close by, help was given more often by those with higher education; when there were more siblings in the family, help was more often given by sisters; and help was less likely to be given when parents were still alive (White 2001).

One similarity between the adult siblings in the United States and Taiwanese siblings discussed earlier is a reported closeness between siblings who provide care for elderly parents. When there is an emotionally close sibling network, the likelihood is much higher that all siblings will share in the support and care (Matthews 1987).

Some life experiences affect sibling closeness, improve relations, or increase the frequency of contact among adult siblings. Ingrid Connidis (1992) found that sibling ties were heightened when divorce, widowhood, or health problems occurred. However, when siblings married or had children, the relationship did not change. Lynn White (2001), on the other hand, found that getting married and having children decreased sibling contact and exchange among siblings.

Gary Lee and Marilyn Ihinger-Tallman (1980) examined whether sibling relations increased the morale of elderly persons. They found that siblings acted as companions, provided emotional support, shared reminiscences, and validated each other's sense of self, but they did not influence each others' degree of life satisfaction, disappointment, or pleasure in life. This finding underlies the more common "benign" exchanges that occur among elderly siblings. Although they may hold high regard for one another, sociability usually consists of telephone calls and visits to one anothers' homes: just sitting around talking and discussing matters of mutual interest—ordinary as opposed to exciting conversations (Scott and Roberto 1981; Allan 1977). Reminiscences are particularly valued because siblings were witnesses to the changes that took place during an individual's life (Connidis 1992). In a now-classic study, Bert Adams (1968) suggested that such mundane contacts are sufficient to meet the general obligation adult siblings have to maintain the relationship.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelatives & Extended FamilySibling Relationships - Sibling Similarities And Differences, Siblings In Non-western Cultures, Sibling Relationships Across The Life Span