There is evidence to suggest that healthy sibling relationships promote
empathy, prosocial behaviour and academic achievement. While healthy sibling relationships can be an incredible source of support, unhealthy and toxic sibling relationships may be equally devastating and destabilising.
Sibling relationships are important. While friendships come and go, you’re stuck with your siblings. This relationship is often the longest relationship in our lives. 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Carolyn Hobdey is a Life coach and Relationships expert. Carolyn believes that ‘for many of us, there are few people that know or spend more time with us than our siblings. We share experiences in childhood – whether good or bad – that create a unique bond that others we build relationships with throughout our lives can never fully appreciate.
These experiences, especially those in our early years, form who we are at a deep level, so frequently, when our siblings go through them with us, they ‘get’ who we are at our very foundations – particularly where those events are parental and occur in the home environment.
Obviously, this can be both a blessing and a curse! On the plus side, there is no need to explain why we respond a certain way to things or even to explain what we’re thinking at times. On the downside, they will probably have stories on you that you’d rather they remained silent about – your parents, friends, colleagues and prospective partners!
Siblings that may have clashed in childhood as differences in age shone a light on conflicting stages of development and attitude, sometimes find their way back to a closer relationship in adulthood. The equilibrium in maturity, as well as the grounding provided by more extensive life experiences – marriage, child-rearing, divorce and, sometimes, including the loss of parents/parental figures – can help siblings to find a common basis upon which to communicate and connect. It is frequently the challenging process of having children ourselves and assuming our own place as the referee, role-model and responsible adult in their lives, that softens our judgement of our own childhood and those key players within it.
That shared history and experiential arc are the very things that allow a sibling to comment, challenge and provide an opinion that we acknowledge as being based on a deep understanding of our life’s journey – however uncomfortable that may be at times. Often, we know that they know us, and have to accept the insight that permits them to express it like no-one else.
For those who grow up as only children, there may be a missing aspect of their lives. Having not experienced the sibling relationship, they can struggle to understand it within other families – especially that of their most intimate relationship or closest friend. It may get mistaken for interference, a threat or as if there are additional people in the relationship because they do not understand the uniqueness of the sibling bond. It can take time to appreciate and accept this ‘significant other(s)’, and the place they occupy.
Not all sibling relationships are created equal, of course. Some never find a commonality or, if it was there in childhood, it may disintegrate as life takes each on their separate path. Choices, circumstances or long-held childhood resentments – let’s be honest, many siblings harbour a question about whether or whom was their parents’ favourite – can carry over into adulthood and never get resolved, or at least fester until something more significant brings a perspective that overshadows the importance of the original gripe.’
The power of sibling relationships can be life-changing in a positive way, and a little bit of maintenance can go a long way in ensuring that these relationships stay healthy throughout our lives.
Carolyn’s latest book is Redefining SELFISH (out now) and her next, out in May, is De-Tw*t Your Life.