Various types of sibling relationships—sister-sister, brother-brother, and brother-sister—are associated with different interactions, qualities, and dynamics. Other types of sibling relationships include adopted, step-, and half siblings. The energy and reactions between any two siblings have qualities of their own. The combination of temperaments, personalities, and other characteristics shapes the way siblings relate to each other.
For most people, sibling relationships are filled with contradictions. Brothers and sisters may feel warm and loving, yet resistant and competitive toward each other. The success with which siblings work through these contradictions and continue to build their relationships into adulthood can affect self-image, future relationships, and happiness throughout their lives.
Brothers and sisters can play many social roles for each other. Depending on the situation, a sibling may play the role of a parent substitute, a playmate, a friend, a companion, or all of these. Sometimes children relate to their siblings through imitation and take on similar traits. Other times they relate by differentiating—striving to express an individual identity.
Siblings who are the same sex or close in age are more likely to try to be different. When there are both boys and girls in a family, children can become more familiar and more comfortable with the opposite sex, and this familiarity may be helpful in future relationships.
Your relationships with your children and your relationship with your spouse impact how your children feel about themselves and how they relate to each other. Siblings tend to have the same attachment status, especially if they have a similar relationship with their primary parent. If there is stress or discord in a family, siblings may compensate by bonding together for support, or they may isolate or look outside the family for comfort.
The birth of a new baby in the family can be exciting and challenging for a young child. He may not fully understand what it means to expect a younger brother or sister. After his new sibling arrives, he experiences new circumstances because of the care needed for the new baby. To ease this transition and to start off the sibling relationship as positively as possible, you can involve your child in the pregnancy, the birth, and the care of his new brother or sister.
I was deliberate in preparing [my daughter] Emi for the arrival of her sister. In the months leading up to [my daughter] Mari’s birth, we talked about it often. One evening, toward the end of my pregnancy with Mari, I went in to Emi’s room to check on her before I went to bed. She had fallen asleep with a ball under her nightgown, in clear imitation of my figure at that time.
When Mari was born, Emi was at her birth, and she cut the cord. We gave Emi a baby carrier for her dolls, similar to the carrier I was using with Mari, so we could care for our babies together. Yet even with preparation and inclusion, the reality of having to share my attention was still disruptive for Emi, as it usually is for firstborns. Even if your firstborn shows love for his new sibling, he may not be happy with this little intruder at all times.
A child’s birth order plays a part in his identity and in the way that he operates in the world. A firstborn child tends to be assertive and responsible. He conforms to standards and is a high achiever because his parents have a special bond with him and set high expectations.
A middle child may be more relaxed, independent, and popular because he faces less pressure from his parents. However, he also may feel that he gets overlooked in the family. The youngest or later-born child usually enjoys a lot of individual attention. He may strive to express his individuality by rebelling or being different.
Because of the intimacy of sibling relationships, conflict is inevitable, and young children may fight several times an hour. On average, children ages two to four engage in an argument every 6.3 minutes. This means that for every hour, parents can expect 9.5 fights. The majority of these fights involve property—specifically, who had what first and who touched something that did not belong to them.
Even though fighting can be stressful to parents, children can make developmental strides within this safe relationship. They learn to deal with conflict, to share, and to work through relationship issues with their brothers and sisters. They can later transfer these skills to other relationships in their personal, professional, and romantic lives.
An only child misses out on having siblings to teach him to negotiate conflict and to share his belongings. He does have some advantages, however. An only child gets the chance to learn and to develop affectionate relationships through extra attention, resources, and expectations from his parents, without being interrupted by the needs of another child. In addition, if the parents of an only child make an effort to provide regular interaction with children of family members or friends, then the child has ample opportunities to learn to be empathic, to share, and to get along with others.
Your attention is your child’s most important resource. Thus, if you have two or more children, it is natural for them to compete for your attention. If your temperament is more compatible with one child, your other child may feel that you favor his sibling over him. He may feel jealous or rejected, and this can affect his self-esteem.
Sibling rivalry is more common when two children are the same sex and close in age. Children have an innate sense of right and wrong, and when siblings are close in age, the differences and perceived injustices in their lives are more pronounced.
If you consider each child’s needs and find a way to spend one-on-one time with each child, you can ease sibling rivalry. In addition, you can encourage a positive sibling relationship by avoiding comparisons and favoritism while acknowledging each child’s strengths, weaknesses, and needs. You can help your children build their self-esteem and their sibling relationships by planning fun family activities that involve everyone, encouraging teamwork, and celebrating each family member’s individuality.
Throughout life, brothers and sisters offer each other connections to the past, the present, and the future. As they grow older, siblings reinforce one another’s identities. As they share memories, they can make sense of their lives, who they are, and where they come from.