- Therapists have focused on relationship with parents, overlooking the formative ways siblings shape childhood.
- Studies show that those who had poor relationships with siblings at 18 had a greater likelihood of depression.
- Other studies show the effect of sibling relationships on academic performance, self esteem, and well-being.
Eighty percent of American children grow up with at least one brother or sister—more than the number of kids living with their fathers. Yet, for more than a century, psychological research has largely ignored the importance of sibling relationships.
The inexplicable neglect began with Sigmund Freud himself. The founder of psychoanalysis refers to the sibling relationship only five times in his two dozen volumes of work. More than a century later—only during the past two decades—have researchers begun to conduct meaningful studies on how siblings shape one another’s lives.
In their traditional focus on the individual’s relationship with each parent, psychoanalysts have overlooked the essential ways in which siblings, too, shape childhood. Children spend more out-of-school time with their siblings than with anyone else, including parents and friends, and siblings typically share the longest relationship over the course of their lifetimes. From their earliest days together, siblings exert a deep influence on one another’s healthy growth and well-being.
Harvard University psychiatrist Robert Waldinger’s new book, The Good Life, is the latest work to reaffirm the importance of sibling relationships. Using data from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has followed its male subjects since 1938, Dr. Waldinger and colleagues have determined that “good relationships keep us happier, healthier, and help us live longer.”
Among many influential factors, the study found vivid evidence of how a lifelong sibling relationship affects well-being. Participants who reported poorer relationships with siblings at age 18 or 19 had a greater likelihood of both major depression and use of mood-altering drugs by age 50. The study concluded that having close sibling relationships in childhood continues to affect well-being well into middle age.
The sibling relationship was more predictive of and crucial to lifelong well‐being than such other factors as childhood closeness to parents, emotional problems in childhood, parental divorce, or even marriage and career. It stands to reason, then, that sibling conflict can be stressful not only for the feuding siblings but also for entire families—and may contribute substantially to depression and loneliness among adults.
Other Studies Corroborate These Findings
Recent studies have indicated that sibling relationships have a significant influence on development. For example:
- Adolescents who perceived that their siblings validated their beliefs and feelings reported higher levels of self‐esteem.
- Sibling support and a strong sibling relationship are correlated with better academic performance.
- For children in or at risk of poverty—with conditions such as family discord, parental mental illness, and/or divorce—the steady presence of an emotionally stable person, like an older sibling, improved their chances of becoming a well‐adjusted adult.
- Sibling support and closeness were associated with reduced levels of loneliness and depression, as well as greater satisfaction later in life.
What Can Parents Do?
Parents set the stage for sibling relationships, and they can help their children build strong connections. Here are a few ways parents can strengthen their children’s bonds:
- Never compare one sibling to another, and never take sides when siblings argue. Instead, help the children work out a solution that’s agreeable to both.
- Be careful not to favor one child over another. Favoritism creates competition and conflict.
- Coach young children explicitly on how to get along. Help your children develop the skills to manage conflict. When there’s disagreement, teach them to express their points of view in a disagreement while actively working to solve the problem.
- Create opportunities for siblings to foster a close relationship through shared family activities—sports, board games, and regular events such as a weekly family hike or movie night.
- Praise siblings when they get along. This shows children that their parents value a harmonious relationship.
- Promote close relationships with friends and family members. One study found that preschoolers who had at least one positive friend relationship before a sibling was born were more likely to have a positive relationship with their new brother or sister.
Waldinger recommends that people of all ages—especially adults—lean into relationships by “replacing screen time with people time or livening up a stale relationship by doing something new together, long walks or date nights, or reaching out to that family member you haven’t spoken to in years, because those all-too-common family feuds take a terrible toll on the people who hold the grudges.”
Relationships are complicated and can be challenging, Waldinger admits—but he encourages people to commit to the challenge of sustaining lifelong connections. It’s worth the investment, he says, because his research shows that the strength of connections with family members and friends is what makes life itself fulfilling and meaningful.
"… the good life is not a destination,” Waldinger writes, “it is the path itself, and the people who are walking it with you. As you walk, second by second, you can decide to whom and to what you give your attention. Week by week, you can prioritize your relationships and choose to be with the people who matter. Year by year, you can find purpose and meaning through the lives that you enrich and the relationships you cultivate. By developing your curiosity and reaching out to others—family, loved ones, coworkers, friends, acquaintances—even strangers—with one thoughtful question at a time, one moment of devoted, authentic attention at a time, you strengthen the foundation of a good life.”
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Waldinger, Robert, MD & Schulz, Marc, PhD, (2023) The Good Life: Lessons from the World's Longest Scientific Study of Happiness
Weir, Kirsten (2022) Improving Sibling Relations, American Psychological Association, Vol. 53, No. 2