Brothers and sisters often have a natural bond that keeps them close, even though they might fight like cats and dogs. Sibling behaviors, such as sibling rivalry, imitation of older siblings or the taking on of certain roles within the family, have been well studied by psychologists. Even if your kids don't appear close or don't interact much with each other, sibling behaviors have a powerful effect on their personality development.
Birth Order Issues
Parents often wonder why their kids are so different. Part of the answer lies in genetics -- siblings share, on average, just half their genetic material -- and environment; siblings don't grow up in the same environment. They might live in the same house, but they interact with those in it differently. Birth order often affects their interactions. Firstborns tend to be more conscientious, responsible, conforming, organized and academically successful, Dr. Frank Sulloway, professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley explains. Younger siblings often have less responsibility than older siblings and spend more time in the company of kids than adults, exactly the opposite environment of the oldest child for his first few years. As a result, they're often less rigid, more fun and more sociable than firstborns.
It's unrealistic for siblings to gladly share their possessions -- including their parents -- willingly and cheerfully. Siblings, especially if they're close in age, spend most of their youth and sometimes their adulthood as well jockeying for position in the family. As a parent, you can head off some of the intensity of sibling rivalry by not setting your kids up in competition with each other. Strike the words, "Why can't you keep your room clean like Suzy?" from your lips, unless you want to listen to your kids tattle on each other, fight behind your back and steal each other's toys right into adulthood. On the other hand, sibling rivalry can lead to competition that can encourage each sibling to develop a successful niche that distinguishes him from his sibling, Dr. Sulloway explains.
Younger children often do look up and imitate older siblings. Older siblings rather than parents are often a younger sibling's teachers on how to behave in the society of the playground and school. Sibling influences on behavior aren't always good; parents should watch for signs that younger siblings are too admiring of troublesome behaviors in older siblings and be ready to frankly discuss the problems involved with these behaviors.
Sibling relationships can cause physical or emotional harm, in many cases. Many kids experience violence at the hands of a sibling, but most don't consider it physical abuse. A 1997 Middle Tennessee State University study presented at the 105th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association found that 65 percent of siblings reported being physically abused and 60 percent reported inflicting harm on siblings. But only 21 percent considered the harm physical abuse; 32 percent reported emotional abuse. Parents must watch for signs of roughhousing gone too far or indications that one child has too much power over another. Sibling abuse can have lasting emotional effects, such as depression or low self-esteem.
Despite the fighting and jockeying for position, siblings often look to one another for support outside the family circle. Having someone who knows you and your background intimately and who shares many of the same stories, folklore and history is a powerful bond that's not easily broken. The bond is likely to persist into adulthood if parents foster it from the beginning and encourage closeness rather than competition between their children. Even though you might despair of it ever happening, there's a good chance your kids will be close later in life; 80 percent of siblings over age 60 have close ties, the author of "Brothers and Sisters," Jane Mersky Leder, reports on the "Psychology Today" website.
Suzanne Robin is a registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology. She also has extensive experience working in home health with developmentally delayed or medically fragile children. Robin received her RN degree from Western Oklahoma State College. She has coauthored and edited numerous books for the Wiley "Dummies" series.