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Friend or Foe? The Evolution of Sibling Relationships Across Time

During our lifetime, we encounter and develop many relationships, and each relationship impacts us in different ways. We may learn more about ourselves and discover which types of relationships are essential to our personal growth.

The relationships that we have with our siblings are often the most enduring relationships of our lives, as they predate partners and outlast parents. Siblings act as peers, playmates, protectors, and rivals, and each of these functions serve to influence our relationships with others across the lifespan.

Sibling Relationships During Childhood

In childhood, young siblings tend to engage in prosocial, play-oriented behaviors, such as make believe playing house or school, and collaborating in team sports. As siblings age into middle childhood, more cooperation-competition conflicts emerge (Furman & Buhrmester, 1985). This can look like siblings comparing to see who got a bigger cookie after dinner, or feeling jealous of a sibling who is allowed different privileges, such as having access to their own cell phone. At this stage, sibling rivalry becomes apparent.

Researchers have found that sibling rivalry is most intense among same-gender children who are born between one to three years apart, and whose parents provide inconsistent discipline. Parents are encouraged to tolerate a moderate amount of rivalry as it promotes conflict resolution skills among kids who can manage to work out minor squabbles on their own.

When adults were surveyed, 77% of respondents could name a benefit of conflict with their siblings, including having closer relationships built on trust and open communication, knowing one’s own personal limits, having greater social skills, increased compassion, and improved parenting and grandparenting skills, especially when it came to helping children deal with sibling rivalry (Bedford, Volling, & Avioli, 2000).

Sibling Relationships During Teenage Years

Once the teenage years hit, siblings typically begin to spend less time together as they pursue separate interests and gain greater independence. Sibling rivalry typically decreases during this time (Scharf, Shulman, & Avigad-Spitz, 2005), simply because siblings spend less time together.

Among siblings who remain close, warmth within the relationship appears to be one of the strongest predictors of relationship quality, and siblings who feel close to their families are more likely to report more positive relationships with each other.

Sibling Relationships During Adulthood

In adulthood, siblings often blur the lines between family and peers (Cicirelli, 1994; Van Volkom, 2006) and up to a quarter of adults reported feeling closer to their siblings than they did to parents or friends (Doherty & Feeney, 2004; Pitman & Scharfe, 2010; Trinke & Bartholomew, 1997).

In middle adulthood, individuals who were most likely to rely on their siblings were individuals who were not in romantic relationships or were single parents; and in later adulthood, individuals who were single and/or childless reported stronger attachment to siblings (Doherty & Feeney, 2004).

The benefits of sibling relationships persist well into adulthood, and as siblings age, they are more likely to provide emotional and social support to one another rather than material support (Lu, 2007).

Sibling Affect on Mental Health

Individuals with more support from siblings reported lower depression and loneliness scores, higher self-esteem, and increased life satisfaction (Milevsky, 2005). Research has shown that sibling relationships usually remain in-tact throughout adulthood (Van Volkom, 2006) and although they may have experienced periods of conflict and strife, the bond that siblings share is lifelong and unique.

Bedford, V. H., Volling, B. L., & Avioli, P. S. (2000). Positive consequences of sibling conflict in childhood and adulthood. The International Journal of Aging & Human Development, 51, 53-69.
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Cicirelli, V. G. (1994). Sibling relationships in cross-cultural perspective. Journal of Marriage & the Family, 56, 7-20.
Doherty, N. A., & Feeney, J. A. (2004). The composition of attachment networks throughout the adult years. Personal Relationships, 11, 469-488.
Lu, P. C. (2007). Sibling relationships in adulthood and old age: A case study of Taiwan. Current Sociology, 55, 621-637.
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