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Sibling Relationships in Childhood and Adolescence: Predictors and Outcomes

Avidan Milevsky

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Paper, 176 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-15709-4
$32.00 / £22.00

August, 2011
Cloth, 176 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-15708-7
$95.00 / £65.50

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The central role of siblings throughout life is becoming more evident as researchers begin to expend scientific resources in an effort to understand this often neglected relationship. The evolving focus on siblings is being perpetuated by several factors. First, recent statistics suggest that close to 90 percent of Western individuals have some type of sibling (i.e., biological, half, step, adoptive). Furthermore, the most long-lasting and enduring relationship an individual develops during life is the sibling relationship (Cicirelli 1980, 1982). The relationships developed with parents, children, and spouses are limited by nature. The age gap between parents and children necessarily translates into a limited number of years the relationship can exist before the death of the preceding generation. Similarly, the spousal relationship, although less susceptible to age-gap limitations, only begins in early adulthood and often even beyond, limiting the length of the relationship. Conversely, considering the average proximity of age between siblings and the fact that the relationship between siblings begins early in life, a sibling bond may exist a lifetime.

Scientifically, the emergence of sibling relationship work is being driven, in part, by a relatively recent reexamination of the socialization dynamics driving development. In most of the early theoretical and empirical literature examining childhood social interactions, the focus has been on the mother–child dyad. The importance of mothers for adaptive development is an essential feature of many traditional theoretical foundations. For example, the mother–child bond is emphasized in psychoanalytic theory in general (Freud 1938) and in attachment literature in particular (Bowlby 1973). More recently, the significance of the mother’s emotional reactions has been addressed in work on social referencing (Feinman and Lewis 1983). This exclusive theoretical focus on the mother–child bond has steered empirical literature for most of the past century. However, subsequent work has indicated that as children develop they are exposed to a collection of support providers. These support providers have been shown to contribute in a considerable manner to many aspects of adaptive child development (Levitt, Guacci-Franco, and Levitt 1993).

More specifically, contemporary advances in systems theory, emphasizing the interconnection between support providers and the need to examine specific relationships in the context of the entire social network system, have contributed to an innovative focus in scientific literature on relationships with other members of the social network beyond the mother–child dyad. This renewed emphasis on the dynamic nature of social relationships and the importance of assessing these integrated processes has been the focus of several recent theoretical and empirical investigations (Bronfenbrenner and Morris, 1998; Levitt, Guacci-Franco, and Levitt 1993; Magnusson and Stattin 1998; Sameroff 2000). As Magnusson (1998:38) acknowledged, “the developmental processes of an individual cannot be understood by studying single variables in isolation from other, simultaneously operating variables.” As children develop they are exposed to a vast network of individual relationships (Levitt 1991; Lewis 1994; Stocker 1994). The significance of the entire social network for the developing child and the unique contribution of various members of the network have been clearly established in numerous studies (Bronfenbrenner 1979; Furman and Buhrmester 1985a; Levitt, Guacci-Franco, and Levitt 1993).

Consequently, an expanding literature now exists focusing on various members of a child’s social network—for example, the child–father relationship (Day and Lamb 2004; Lamb1986; Marsiglio et al. 2000; Parke and Buriel 1998; Parke et al. 2005). Early psychological literature largely ignored the role of fathers in child development. At best, fathers were seen as holding peripheral roles in family life. Bowlby (1973) suggested that fathers may serve as a source of support for mothers as they work on developing an attachment to their newborn child. However, ensuing research has highlighted the growing direct function fathers play in the lives of children. Not only have fathers been shown to play a larger role in the lives of children, they have also been shown to serve a unique purpose in parenting. In one of the seminal works on the importance of fathers in child development, Lamb (1986) detailed the significance of fatherhood involvement for many aspects of a child’s cognitive and socioemotional development. More recently, studies have clearly reported that children and adolescents with fathers in their life experience considerably greater well-being than children with missing fathers (Day and Padilla-Walker 2009; Marsiglio et al. 2000; Milevsky, Schlechter, Netter, and Keehn 2007).

Recent studies have also examined the role played by grandparents in the lives of children. Children with a close relationship with their grandparents have been shown to be better adjusted than children who lack a close grandparent bond (Eisenberg 2004). In addition to providing general support for their grandchildren, in many instances grandparents have been charged with the primary responsibilities of raising their grandchildren in response to the changing nature of families in Western society (Jendrek 1994).

An additional relationship within the complex web of a child’s social network is the child’s relationship with siblings. However, in comparison with research on other members of the social network, the scientific study of siblings has received little attention theoretically and is a relatively new area of empirical inquiry (Cicirelli 1995; Dunn 2000, 2005; Irish 1964; Kramer and Bank 2005). In response, a limited but growing interest in many aspects of siblings has emerged in recent literature (e.g., Brody 1998; Brody et al. 1998; Cutting and Dunn 2006; Dunn, 1992; East and Khoo 2005; Linares et al. 2007; Milevsky 2005; Schubert, Wagner, and Schubert 1984; Volling 2003).

The theoretical significance of sibling relations has been understood within the context of a child’s adult and peer relationships (Dunn 1983). In early theoretical work on the distinction between a child’s relationship with adults and a child’s relationship with peers, Piaget (1965) and Sullivan (1953) proposed that these two distinct relationships are instrumental to development in unique and separate manners. The relationship that a child develops with adults serves as the basis for the child learning about the order and rules of the world. According to Piaget, the world may seem extremely chaotic and unorganized to a newborn child. Children are born with a limited number of schemas, or mental structures, used to assimilate information from the environment. Hence, much of what a developing child perceives is not being integrated cognitively in a coherent fashion. This inability to assimilate information leaves the child with many unanswered questions, making the world seem chaotic. The function of adults in a child’s life is to set order and consistency to assist the child in reaching some level of cognitive regulation. This function is accomplished by imposing rules and regulations in regard to behavior, cleanliness, eating, and similar issues. By supplying the rules and regulations, adults provide structure that assists the child in understanding the foundations of society. The tumult of the world seems more manageable with the rules and order provided by parents. However, although the child may seem to be following the rules set by adults, this adherence is not based on a childhood comprehension of the motivation and principles behind the rules. The child follows the rules to avoid any confrontations with the adults (Sullivan 1953). The drawback of the adult-imposed structure is that it comes at the expense of children feeling like they can contribute to the system.

In contrast, the nature of a child’s peer relationships is one in which the child begins to understand that he or she has the ability to contribute and share ideas with others. Unlike the preconstructed order and regularity that children perceive from their interactions with adults, peer relationships provide children the ability to contribute and be creative as well. It offers them a sense of self-efficacy. When children engage their peers, it provides them the opportunity to formulate their own rules of engagement by expressing their personal views and by listening to the views of peers. As a result, a child’s peer interactions foster a sense of complete understanding and sensitivity between the child and others (Youniss 1980). Hinde (1979) defined the distinction between these two types of relationships by characterizing the mutual understanding between a child and a peer as “direct reciprocity” and portraying the misunderstood but functional cohesion of the child–adult interactions as “complementarity."

Accordingly, Dunn (1983) and Howe and Recchia (2005) suggested that the relationship a child develops with a sibling includes elements found in both child–adult and child–peer interactions. The closeness and intimacy found in peer relations are evident with siblings as well. However, the complementarity of the parent–child relationship can also be found in sibling relationships in cases were a child is interacting with an older sibling who may be supplying the foundations of rules and order characteristic of the child–adult relationship. This combined and unique function played by siblings is a crucial element needed for development and necessitates careful consideration when studying childhood socialization dynamics.

Similarly, empirical studies have highlighted the importance of sibling relationships. Positive sibling relations have been associated with enhanced cognitive, emotional, and social abilities in childhood and adolescence (Bryant and Crockenberg 1980; Dunn et al. 1991; Howe and Ross 1990; Milevsky 2003; Smith 1993). The significance of siblings in the lives of children and adolescents can also be seen in studies assessing the negative influence siblings can have on each other. Younger siblings have been found to be at an elevated risk of drug use, risky sexual behavior, and delinquency when their older sibling was engaged in these activities (Conger and Rueter 1996; Duncan, Duncan, and Hops 1996; East and Khoo 2005; Haurin and Mott 1990; Khoo and Muthén 2000; Pomery et al. 2005; Rodgers and Rowe 1990; Rowe and Gulley 1992; Snyder, Bank, and Burraston 2005; Windle 2000). More significantly, Rende and colleagues (2005) found that the elevated risk for adolescent drug use due to sibling use was evident even when genetic relatedness was controlled.

The potential of siblings in promoting adaptive, or maladaptive, development suggested by both theoretical and empirical sources warrants a closer examination of the wide-ranging issues involved in sibling relations. Unfortunately, the focus in the limited work on siblings has primarily been on the negative aspects of the relationship, such as sibling rivalry, negativity, and victimization (Roscoe, Goodwin, and Kennedy 1987; Widom and Kuhns 1996; Widom, Weiler, and Cottler 1999). However, considering the promise of a close sibling bond, it would be advantageous to concentrate on the constructive aspects of sibling relationships and on what can be done to enhance this influential bond. Hence, the focus of this book is on the predictors of sibling relationship quality and the outcomes associated with a close sibling bond in children and adolescents. The two questions the book sheds light on are: (1) What are the social processes within the family that contribute to the formation of adaptive sibling relationships? And (2) what are the uses, benefits, and implications of having a close sibling bond?

There are both research and applied benefits to shedding light on these questions. From a research perspective, clarifying the processes associated with sibling relationship formation serves as an additional building block in comprehending the complexity of the interconnected social dynamic inherent in development. Clinically, appreciating the benefits of a close sibling relationship and the family dynamics contributing to this bond can assist systems-based practitioners in providing meaningful family services. An understanding of this relationship within the overall family structure can be used during family assessment, conceptualization, and intervention. Finally, parents looking to enhance the sibling bond of their children can gain immensely by understanding the underlying issues involved in the development of sibling relationships. Research has highlighted clear aspects that are common in families with close sibling relationships that can be applied to practice.

To answer these questions and to capture the intricacies of the sibling relationship in a holistic fashion, topics are examined theoretically, quantitatively, and qualitatively. Each area begins with a theoretical foundation followed by a review of the empirical literature on the subject. Additionally, considering that quantitative research often overlooks critical elements of the issue under investigation (Glaser and Strauss 1967; Shai 2002), each chapter includes qualitative depictions of the topic examined. Drawn from an ongoing study on adolescent development, personal narratives describe past and current sibling relationships. The sample consisted of adolescents and emerging adults who were presented with the question, “Tell me about your sibling relationships currently and about your experiences with your siblings growing up. Write about these relationships in the context of your entire family dynamics. Be as specific as possible and provide examples.” Themes generated from the responses, using a variation of thematic analysis, are included in chapters that correspond with the derived theme. The personal narratives assist in understanding the rich and unique experiences of siblings in their own words. The integration of topics using theoretical, quantitative, and qualitative data supplies a systematic and comprehensive understanding of sibling relationships.

The first chapter examines the influence of familial structural variables on sibling relations. Research on familial structural variables has proposed several variables that may influence the type of relationship developed between siblings. These variables include birth order, difference in age between siblings, size of sibship, and gender of child and sibling (Furman and Buhrmester 1985a).

Chapters 2 and 3 explore the indirect and direct influences of parenting on fostering positive sibling relationships in children and adolescents. Parents influence sibling relationships indirectly through the type of home environment they create and the parenting practices they employ. Additionally, parents contribute to positive sibling relationships directly through the way they intervene in sibling disputes.

The fourth chapter examines psychological and academic outcomes associated with positive sibling relationships in children and adolescents. The chapter more specifically examines sibling support as a moderator or buffer in cases of ecological risk.

Chapter 5 considers the compensatory effects of sibling support in the absence of parental support. Literature on the connection between child–parent and sibling relationships has suggested a congruous configuration between the two. However, recent studies have suggested the possibility of a compensatory pattern in the link between parent–child and sibling relationships. This compensatory pattern may emerge when a child experiencing a negative relationship with a parent develops a close sibling bond as a compensation for the negative parental connection.

Chapter 6 investigates the compensatory effects of sibling support in the absence of friend support. Additionally, the chapter assesses not only whether children with low friend support turn to siblings for the missing support, but also whether the positive outcomes associated with peer support are evident in cases where a sibling is providing the support in compensation for the lack of peer support.

Chapter 7 explores the literature on sibling “deidentification.” Children in the same family may actively pursue divergent paths in many areas of life in order to minimize the comparison between siblings and hence limit sibling competition and rivalry.

Finally, the eighth chapter integrates the major findings on sibling relationships and discusses the application of these findings for clinicians, providers of social services, educators, and parents. Additionally, the chapter points to some of the limitations in current studies on siblings and offers several future directions in sibling research. By examining these diverse areas of sibling relations, the book provides a comprehensive account of some of the predictors and outcomes of sibling relationships in children and adolescent.


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About the Author

Avidan Milevsky is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in child, adolescent, and lifespan developmental psychology. He serves as director of the Center for Parenting Research and is a psychotherapist at Wellspring Counseling in Towson, Maryland.

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