Psychology of Sibling Relationships Research Paper

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Siblings—brothers and sisters—have a key place in legends, history and literature throughout the world, from the era of the Egyptians and Greeks onward. The great majority of children (around 80 percent in Europe and the USA) grow up with siblings, and for most individuals their relationships with their siblings are the longest-lasting in their lives. Scientific study of the psychology of siblings is relatively recent, but is fast-growing, centering chiefly on studies of childhood and adolescence. The scientific interest of siblings lies, in particular, in the following domains: the nature and the potential influence of siblings on each other’s development and adjustment, the illuminating perspective the study of siblings provides on developmental issues, and the challenge that siblings present to our understanding of how families influence development—why siblings differ notably in personality and adjustment even though they grow up within the same family, the significance of their shared and separate family experiences, and their genetic relatedness.

1. The Term ‘Siblings’

This term is usually applied to ‘full’ siblings, brothers and sisters who are the offspring of the same mother and father, and share 50 percent of their genes; however, with the changes in family structure during the later decades of the twentieth century, increasing numbers of children have relationships with ‘half siblings,’ children with whom they share one biological parent, and ‘step-siblings,’ children who are unrelated biologically.

2. The Nature Of Sibling Relationships

2.1 Characteristics Of The Relationship

The relationship between siblings is one that is characterized by distinctive emotional power and intimacy from infancy onward. It is a relationship that offers children unique opportunities for learning about self and other, with considerable potential for affecting children’s well-being, intimately linked as it is with each child’s relationship with the parents. Clinicians and family systems theorists have, from early in the twentieth century, expressed interest in the part siblings play in family relationships, and in the adjustment of individuals. However, until the 1980s there was relatively little systematic research on siblings (with the notable exception of the classic studies of birth order by Koch 1954). In the 1980s and 1990s, research interest broadened greatly to include the investigation of sibling developmental influences, sources of individual differences between siblings, and links between family relationships (Boer and Dunn 1990, Brody 1996).

Individual differences in how siblings get along with each other are very marked from early infancy; siblings’ feelings range from extreme hostility and rivalry to affection and support, are often ambivalent, and are expressed uninhibitedly. The relationship is also notable for its intimacy: siblings know each other very well, and this can be a source of both support and conflict. These characteristics increase the potential of the relationship for developmental influence. Because of the emotional intensity and familiarity of their relationships, the study of siblings provides an illuminating window on what children understand about each other, which has challenged and informed conceptions of the development of early social understanding (Dunn 1992).

2.2 Developmental Changes In Sibling Relationships

As children’s powers of understanding and communication develop, their sibling relationships change. Younger siblings play an increasingly active role in the relationship during the preschool years, and their older siblings take increasing interest in them. During middle childhood their relationships become more egalitarian; there is disagreement about how far this reflects an increase in the power of younger siblings over older siblings, or a decrease in the dominance both older and younger try to exert. A decrease in warmth between siblings during adolescence parallels the patterns of change found in the parent–child relationship as adolescents become increasingly involved with peers outside the family (Boer and Dunn 1990). There is a paucity of studies of siblings in adulthood; however, what information we have indicates that in the USA, most siblings maintain contact, communicate and share experiences until very late in life (Cicirelli 1996). During middle age, most adults describe feelings of closeness, rather than rivalry with their siblings, even when they have reduced contact, though family crises can evoke sibling conflict. Closeness and companionship become increasingly evident among older adults. Step and half-siblings also continue to keep contact with each other, though they see each other less often than full siblings. Relationships with sisters appear to be particularly important in old age; this is generally attributed to women’s emotional expressiveness and their traditional roles as nurturers. Little systematic research has focused on ethnic differences; however, in a national sample in the USA, sibling relationships in African-American, Hispanic, non-Hispanic whites, and Asian-American adult respondents were compared; the conclusion was that the similarities across groups in contact and social support far outweighed the differences (Riedmann and White 1966).

Siblings play a central role in adults’ lives in many other cultures; the psychology of these relationships remains to be studied systematically.

2.3 Continuities In Individual Differences In Relationships

Do the marked individual differences in the affection or hostility that siblings show toward each other in early childhood show stability through middle childhood and adolescence? Research described in Brody (1996) indicates there is some continuity over time for both the positive and negative aspects of sibling relations, but there is also evidence for change. Contributors to change included new friendships children formed during the school years, which led to loss of warmth in the sibling relationship, or increased jealousy; developmental changes in the individuals; and life events (the majority of which contributed to increased intimacy and warmth, an exception being divorce or separation of parents). Research on adult siblings shows the relationship is not a static one during adulthood: life events, employment changes, etc. affect adult siblings’ relations—some increasing intimacy and contact, others with negative effects (Cicirelli 1996).

2.4 Influences On Individual Differences

The temperament of both individuals in a sibling dyad is important in relation to conflict between them, and the match in their temperaments, too (Brody 1996). The effects of gender and age gap are less clear: Findings are inconsistent for young siblings, while research on children in middle childhood indicates that these ‘family constellation’ effects influence the relationship in complex ways; gender and socioeconomic status apparently increase in importance as influences on the sibling relationship during adolescence.

Most striking are the links between the quality of sibling relationships and other relationships within the family—the parents’ relationships with each child, and the mother–partner or marital relationship. These connections are considered next.

3. Siblings, Parents, And Peers: Connections Between Relationships

To what extent and in what ways do parent–child relationships influence sibling relationships? Currently there is much debate and some inconsistency in the research findings. First, there is some evidence that the security of children’s attachment to their parents is correlated with later sibling relationship quality, and that positive parent–child relations are correlated with positive sibling relations. Note that conclusions cannot be drawn about the direction of causal influence from these correlational data. There are also data that fit with a ‘compensatory’ model, in which intense supportive sibling relationships develop in families in which parents are uninvolved. This pattern may be characteristic of families at the extremes of stress and relationship difficulties.

More consistent is the evidence that differential parent–child relationships (in which more attention and affection, and less punishment is shown by a parent toward one sibling than another) are associated with more conflicted, hostile sibling relationships (Hetherington et al. 1994). These links are especially clear for families under stress, such as those who have experienced divorce, and in those with disabled or sick siblings. Again, note that the evidence is correlational.

Indirect links between parent–child and sibling relationships have been documented in studies of the arrival of a sibling; a number of different processes are implicated ranging from general emotional disturbance, through processes of increasing cognitive complexity—such as increased positivity between siblings in families in which mothers talked to the firstborn about the feelings and needs of the baby in early months. This evidence indicates that even with young siblings, processes of attribution and reflection may be implicated in the quality of their developing relationship.

The quality of the marital relationship is also linked to sibling relationships: mother–partner hostility is associated with increased negativity between siblings, while affection between adult partners is associated with positivity between siblings. Both direct pathways between marital and sibling relationships, and indirect pathways (via parent–child relationships) are implicated (Dunn et al. 1999).

4. Developmental Influence

4.1 Influence On Adjustment

Three adjustment outcome areas in which siblings are likely to exert influence are aggressive and externalizing behavior, internalizing problems, and self esteem. For example, hostile aggressive sibling behavior is correlated with increasing aggressive behavior by the other sibling. Patterson and his group have shown the shaping role that siblings play in this pattern (Patterson 1986), for both clinic and community samples. The arrival of a sibling is consistently found to be linked to increased problems: disturbance in bodily functions, withdrawal, aggressiveness, dependency, and anxiety. It is thought these changes are linked to parallel changes in interaction between the ‘displaced’ older siblings and the parents.

A growing literature links sibling influence to deviant behavior in adolescence. For example, frequent and problematic drinking by siblings increases adolescents’ tendency to drink: siblings appear to have both a direct effect and an indirect later effect on other sibs’ risks of becoming a drinker—through adolescents’ selection of peers who drink. Siblings can also be an important source of support in times of stress, and act as therapists for siblings with some problems, such as eating disorders (Boer and Dunn 1990).

4.2 Influence On Social Understanding

The kinds of experience children have with their siblings are related to key aspects of their sociocognitive development. For instance, positive cooperative experiences with older siblings are correlated with the development of greater powers of understanding emotion and others’ mental states, both in early and middle childhood. Direction of effects in these associations is not clear: children who are good at understanding feelings and others’ minds are more effective cooperative play companions, thus their early sophistication in social understanding may contribute to the development of cooperative play, which itself fosters further social understanding (Dunn 1992). Other aspects of prosocial, cooperative behavior, pretend play, and conflict management have all been reported to be associated with the experience of friendly sibling interactions.

While it appears plausible that experiences with siblings should ‘generalize’ to children’s relationships with peers, the story appears more complex, and there is not consistent evidence for simple positive links. The emotional dynamics and demands of sibling and friend relationships are very different.

5. Why Are Siblings So Different From One Another?

Striking differences between siblings in personality, adjustment, and psychopathology have been documented in a wide range of studies. These present a challenge to conventional views of family influence, as the children are growing up within the same family. Extensive studies by behavior geneticists have now shown that the sources of environmental influence that make individuals different from one another work within rather than between families. The contribution of sibling studies to our understanding of the relative roles of genetics and environment in studies of socialization and development has been notable: the message here is not that family influence is unimportant, but that we need to document those experiences that are specific to each child in the family, and need to study more than one child in the family if we are to clarify what are the salient environmental influences on development (Dunn and Plomin 1990, Hetherington et al. 1994). The developmental research that documents the extreme sensitivity with which children monitor the interaction between other family members, and the significance of differential parent– child relationships combine here to clarify the social processes that are implicated in the development of differences between children growing up in the ‘same’ family.

6. Methodological Issues

For the study of siblings in childhood, a combination of naturalistic and structured observations, interviews with parents and siblings have proved most useful. Children are articulate and forthcoming about their relations with their siblings, and cope with interviews and questionnaires from an early age. As in the study of any relationship, it is important to get both participants’ views on their relationship as these may differ, and both are valid. Cicirelli (1996) points out some particular methodological problems with studying siblings in adults: incomplete data sets formed when one sibling is unwilling or unable to participate, choices over which dyad is picked, and limitations in sample representativeness.

7. Future Directions

Exciting future directions in sibling research include: clarification of the links between family relationships (including those involving step-relations); identification of the processes of family influence—for which we need studies with more than one child per family; further investigation of the role of genetics in individual development; and further exploration of significant sibling experiences for social understanding in middle childhood and adolescence.


  1. Boer F, Dunn J 1990 Children’s sibling relationships: Developmental and clinical issues. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ
  2. Brody G H 1996 Sibling relationships their causes and consequences. Ablex, Norwood, NJ
  3. Cicirelli V G 1996 Sibling relationships in middle and old age. In: Brody G H (ed.) Sibling relationships: Their causes and consequences. Ablex, Norwood, NJ, pp. 47–73
  4. Dunn J 1992 Siblings and development. Current Directions in Psychological Science 1: 6–9
  5. Dunn J, Deater-Deckard K, Pickering K, Beveridge M and the ALSPAC study team 1999 Siblings, parents and partners: Family relationships within a longitudinal community study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 40: 1025–37
  6. Dunn J, Plomin R 1990 Separate Lives: Why Siblings are so Diff Basic Books, New York
  7. Hetherington E M, Reiss D, Plomin R 1994 Separate Social Worlds of Siblings: The Impact of Nonshared Environment on Development. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ
  8. Koch H L 1954 The relation of ‘primary mental abilities’ in five-and six-year-olds to sex of child and characteristics of his sibling. Child Development 25: 209–23
  9. Patterson G R 1986 The contribution of siblings to training for fighting: A microsocial analysis. In: Olweus D, Block J, Radke-Yarrow M (eds.) Development of Antisocial and Prosocial Behavior: Research, Theories, and Issues. Academic Press, Orlando, FL, pp. 235–61
  10. Riedmann A, White L 1966 Adult sibling relationships: Racial and ethnic comparisons. In: Brody G H et al. (ed.) Sibling Relationships: Their Causes and Consequences: Advances in Applied Developmental Psychology. Ablex, Norwood, NJ, pp. 105–26
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