Parent News for May-June 2001
Of Interest

The Joys and Complexities of Sibling Relationships

by Peggy Patten

Relationships between brothers and sisters have often been called life's most influential and longest lasting relationships-lasting longer than ties to parents, spouses, or children (Bank & Kahn, 1997). Folk stories, biblical and classical literature, and numerous biographical and autobiographical accounts of childhood have focused on the role siblings play in children's development. Beginning in the 1980s, the influence of sibling relationships has received attention from developmental psychologists, researchers, and clinicians (Boer & Dunn, 1992). What factors influence the relationship between siblings? Why are some relationships marked by affection and closeness and others by conflict and hostility?

The variability in sibling relationships results from a complex interplay of factors that include gender, temperament, age spacing, and birth order. Sibling relationships are also embedded in the family and influenced by parenting behaviors, marital quality, and family conflict (Boer & Dunn, 1992; Stoneman & Brody, 1993; Eisenberg & Fabes, 1998). Although the research is not clear on what impact many of these variables have on brother and sister relationships, some effects appear with notable consistency. Among them is the role of the emotional climate of the family-marital conflict and marital satisfaction-in sibling relationships. Sibling conflict appears to be more frequent among brothers and sisters from homes where there are high levels of conflict. When there is a high amount of marital discord, there tends to be a high amount of aggression among the children (Boer & Dunn, 1992; Patten, 2000). While a sibling relationship can become more intense when parental care is emotionally unfulfilling or unavailable, the intensified bond can either be helpful or harmful to the children's relationship, depending on the attitudes and behaviors of the parents and the personalities of the children (Bank & Kahn, 1997; Boer & Dunn, 1992). For example, if the parents are physically or emotionally unavailable to care for their children, an older sibling may assume the parenting role and work to bind brothers and sisters together as a family. While most people would not consider this to be the best family dynamic, it can be a successful option for keeping children together and the family intact.

A second area of consensus in the research refers to the connection between parental favoritism and hostile relationships among the children. Several family studies have shown that brothers and sisters recognize that being treated fairly by parents does not mean being treated equally, and that siblings often have needs that require differential treatment by parents (Patten, 1999). However, when actual (as opposed to perceived) preferential treatment of one sibling occurs-one sibling is treated with less affection and more coercion and punishment by the parents-sibling rivalry, sibling aggression, and sibling avoidance is more intense (Boer & Dunn, 1992).

Brothers and sisters typically spend large amounts of time together, serving as one another's first playmates and companions. It is therefore not surprising that sibling relationships influence social and cognitive learning. Research supports what many parents observe firsthand about younger children imitating older siblings: older children serve as effective teachers of a variety of skills from early childhood through the middle years, when time with peers increases (Azmitia & Hesser, 1993).

The effects of siblings' influence on the acquisition of prosocial skills such as helping, sharing, and cooperating are well documented. Children who had older brothers and sisters who modeled more friendly and cooperative behavior toward their younger siblings showed more prosocial skills than children whose older siblings exhibited more aggression and teasing toward them (Garcia et al., 2000). The social skills children acquire from their relationships with their brothers and sisters extend beyond the home, influencing interactions with peers. Children who are hostile and aggressive with their siblings are more likely to be rejected by their peer group (Boer & Dunn, 1992, p. 9). Furthermore, negative and hostile sibling relationships appear to predict aggressive and delinquent behaviors with peers as adolescents (Kim et al., 1999, pp. 1209-1210). In other words, research suggests that aggression among siblings and delinquent behaviors often occur together.

However, those research findings do not mean that poor sibling relations cause children to have poor peer relations. There may be other factors that are causing poor sibling and peer relations. For example, the relationship between brothers, sisters, and friends is influenced by the parent-child relationship. The complex interplay of family factors may involve negative parenting practices, such as coercive discipline (hitting, bribing, or spanking), and inadequate parental monitoring (being unaware of where the children are and what games are being played). These ineffective parenting practices can combine with parental tolerance of sibling conflict, often leading to high levels of negative sibling interactions. These interactions, in turn, are associated with children's aggressive behavior with peers (Boer & Dunn, 1992; Kim et al., 1999).

Surprisingly, moderate amounts of sibling conflict can play a potentially beneficial role in social interactions with peers. Conflict between siblings is a common occurrence and coexists both with periods of positive sibling interactions and with periods of relative calm (Newman, 1994). But it is the level of conflict balanced with the level of warmth or support in relationships between siblings that seems to determine the effect sibling conflict has on children. Children in sibling relationships marked by moderate conflict along with moderate warmth were rated by teachers as more socially competent and having more emotional control than children in sibling relationships marked by high conflict and low levels of warmth. The latter group had poorer school adjustment and were more disliked by their peers. Home environments where brothers and sisters experience moderate levels of conflict along with moderate levels of warmth and support may help children develop important prosocial skills and skills of conflict negotiation (Stormshak et al., 1996). It may be that siblings serve as a "relational bridge" to effective peer relationships, allowing siblings to hone skills of social competency they can use throughout their lives (Bigelow et al., 1996).

Despite the potentially beneficial effects of moderate sibling conflict, sibling bickering and conflict are the areas that seem to trouble parents more than most other parenting concerns (Patten, 1999). In her book, Loving Each One Best, parent educator Nancy Samalin reminds parents that the bonds between brothers and sisters do not always look the way parents think they should. Rivalry, Samalin believes, fulfills a valuable role by allowing siblings to test limits, to assert themselves, and to learn how to negotiate their wants and needs, all within the safe confines of their home (Samalin, 1996). To avoid the kind of bickering that occurs to gain parental attention, Samalin encourages parents to stay out of sibling conflict unless the conflict becomes violent or deliberately cruel (Samalin, 1996, p. 61).

Nancy Samalin provides the following tips to sidestep what she terms the "fairness trap"-parents' concern over differential treatment of their children (1996, pp. 86-94):

  • Don't keep saying, "Life is unfair." Such a philosophical statement not only denies children's very real feelings, but also is likely lost on children who view the statement as "Mom is unfair."

  • Give children permission to disagree. The fact that parents must set limits for their children does not mean that they should expect their children not to disagree with them. Parents need to make decisions based on their own good judgment whether or not children like the decisions, but it is okay for children to disagree.

  • Enlist children in making things fair. With some simple problem solving suggestions from parents, often children can figure out their own solutions to everyday areas of siblings conflict-completing household chores, selecting TV programs, or sharing computer time.

  • Tickle their funny bones. Humor is often the best approach for addressing a complaint, even for the most disgruntled child.

  • Remember that "equality" isn't always best. Children love their moments in the sun. They can and should also learn to enjoy others' moments in the sun as well, times when their sibling has his/her moment to shine.

  • Relinquish fairness as a goal. Often when children complain about not getting equal treatment, what they really are asking for is an extra hug, a moment of undivided attention, an acknowledgment that they are annoyed or frustrated, or a compliment. Listen for the feelings behind the words.

Samalin reminds parents that values related to how we treat one another need to be reinforced continually with children and that neither hurtful words nor hurtful acts should be tolerated between siblings. "Trying to teach siblings to express anger, irritation, annoyance, or resentment toward one another without cruelty can be an exhausting and discouraging process. But we have to keep hammering away. It's one of the most valuable lessons we can teach our children" (Samalin, 1996, pp. 58-59).

In our mobile society, relationships between brothers and sisters can offer a kind of shelter that few other relationships can provide, writes Mary Pipher (1996). "Siblings are, for better and for worse, each other's ultimate fellow travelers. Whether their bonds are comfortable or uncomfortable, or a little of both, they are co-voyagers in a world without many enduring reference points" (Bank & Kahn, 1997, p. xvii).

For More Information

Parenting Style and Its Correlates


Azmitia, Margarita, & Hesser, Joanne. (1993). Why siblings are important agents of cognitive development: A comparison of siblings and peers. Child Development, 63(2), 430-444.

Bank, Stephen P., & Kahn, Michael D. (1997). The sibling bond. New York: HarperCollins. (ERIC Document No. ED411042)

Bigelow, Brian J.; Tesson, Geoffrey; & Lewko, John H. (1996). Learning the rules: The anatomy of children's relationships. New York: Guilford. (ERIC Document No. ED411099)

Boer, Frits, & Dunn, Judy. (1992). Children's sibling relationships: Developmental and clinical issues. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. (ERIC Document No. ED365435)

Eisenberg, Nancy, & Fabes, Richard A. (1998). Prosocial development. In William Damon (Series Ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 3. Socialization, personality, and social development (5th ed., Chapter 11). New York: Wiley.

Garcia, Monica M.; Shaw, Daniel S.; Winslow, Emily B.; & Yaggi, Kirsten E. (2000). Destructive sibling conflict and the development of conduct problems in young boys. Developmental Psychology, 36(1), 44-53. (ERIC Journal No. EJ602206)

Kim, Jungmeen E.; Hetherington, E. Mavis; & Reiss, David. (1999). Associations among family relationships, antisocial peers, and adolescents' externalizing behaviors: Gender and family type differences. Child Development, 70(5), 1209-1230.

Newman, Joan. (1994). Conflict and friendship in sibling relationships: A review. Child Study Journal, 24(2), 119-148. (ERIC Journal No. EJ495318)

Patten, Peggy. (1999). Sibling relationships: An interview with Laurie Kramer. Parent News [Online], 5(3). Available:

Patten, Peggy. (2000). Marital relationships, children, and their friends: What's the connection? An interview with E. Mark Cummings. Parent News [Online], 6(3). Available:

Pipher, Mary. (1996). The shelter of each other: Rebuilding our families. New York: Ballantine.

Samalin, Nancy. (1996). Loving each one best: A caring and practical approach to raising siblings. New York: Bantam. (ERIC Document ED431542)

Stoneman, Zolinda, & Brody, Gene H. (1993). Sibling temperaments, conflict, warmth, and role asymmetry. Child Development, 64(6), 1786-1800. (ERIC Journal No. EJ476456)

Stormshak, Elizabeth A.; Bellanti, Christina J.; & Bierman, Karen L. (1996). The quality of sibling relationships and the development of social competence and behavioral control in aggressive children. Developmental Psychology, 32(1), 79-89. (ERIC Journal No. EJ524925)

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