The sibling relationship is one of the longest-lasting relationships in a person’s life. Over 80 percent of U.S. children grow up with a sibling, but the importance of this relationship often goes unnoticed. Three distinct characteristics make this relationship crucial to personal well-being: everyday contact, emotional intensity, and the involuntary nature of the relationship. Together, these characteristics create a distinct freedom and familiarity that enables learning important thinking and relationship skills. It is these unique characteristics that also make this relationship different from one with a parent, friend, or romantic partner and why sibling relationships are so important to people’s lives.
1. Everyday Contact
Most children live with their siblings all or part of the time, providing many opportunities to hang out, play games and sports, share mealtimes, and celebrate accomplishments and holidays. In fact, some children spend more time with their siblings than with their friends, parents, or by themselves. The extensive time siblings spend together creates a shared history and familiarity not necessarily experienced in other relationships. Time together can create a strong bond.
2. Emotional Intensity
Siblings can be important sources of support, love, and companionship throughout the lifespan. While growing up, frequent contact and a shared history provide siblings with close knowledge of each other’s quirks, worries, and joys. Sometimes, a person’s greatest moments of happiness and laughter are shared with siblings. Sibling relationships also can be the basis for tremendous frustration and anger not experienced in other relationships. The extensive familiarity that siblings share can cause tension and the use of aggressive behaviors that would not necessarily be seen in friendships or with a parent.
3. Involuntary Nature of the Relationship
Unlike friendships, relationships with siblings in childhood and adolescence include less choice about continuing or ending them. If two friends are not getting along, one may decide to move on from the friendship. This is unlikely with siblings, sometimes leaving children feeling ‘stuck’ with their brother or sister. However, this sometimes-reluctant connection can also provide freedom to explore diverse ways of interacting with another person, like a testing ground with less worry about losing the relationship.
A Place for Developing Thinking and Relationship Skills
These three characteristics make the sibling relationship an ideal spot to explore and learn thinking and interpersonal skills. Siblings frequently teach each other during their daily interactions. Older siblings are more likely to be in the teaching role than younger siblings, but siblings can switch teacher and student roles as well.
Interactions with siblings are important for developing cognitive abilities such as seeing another’s point of view, experiencing the consequences of actions, creating a shared meaningful experience, and solving problems. During warm sibling interactions such as shared play or joking around, prosocial skills are developed. These skills include cooperation, providing support, sharing, and being kind.
As most parents know, sibling fighting can be a common occurrence. Siblings often fight about getting their way and personal property. Although parents typically want to stop all instances of conflict, children can acquire important skills in constructive conflict.
Rather than having a stalemate and possibly resentment, parents can coach their children to successfully resolve disputes with compromise and negotiation to find a solution. With encouragement, both older and younger siblings can learn to understand others’ feelings and viewpoints. Taken together, these skills help children focus on the future, rather than past hurts, and value their siblings.
Notably, skills learned during sibling conflicts are often displayed during conflicts with friends and romantic partners. Resolution of disputes is important to mental health, so patterns learned in sibling relationships can have lifelong impacts.
Despite siblings being typically overlooked as an important relationship, everyday contact, emotional intensity, and the involuntary nature of children’s sibling relationships make them important for well-being. Understanding the significance of sibling relationship experiences to our lives will help enhance our well-being and relationship health.
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McHale, S. M, Updegraff, K. A., & Whiteman, S. D. (2013). Sibling relationships. In G. W. Peterson & K. R. Bush (Eds.) Handbook of Marriage and the Family (pp. 329-351). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-3987-5_15