Sibling psychology

Here’s a riddle for you: what is that if you haven’t got one you want one, and if you have one you would probably gladly give it away? The answer of course is “the sibling”. If you look up an etymological dictionary you will see that the word comes from the Greek verb “sible” meaning to “irritate, annoy, compete, demean at every opportunity”…not really, but you get the idea. Siblings invariably squabble and compete over any and every thing. While this can be annoying and irritating for parents it can also be psychologically damaging for the siblings themselves as has been highlighted in a new study.

The study looked only at pairs of white, middle-class American siblings, so whether the findings can be extended to other cultural and socio-economic groups remains a moot point. Nevertheless, the findings are instructive for parents.

The average ages of the pairs were 12 and 15 years, and the siblings were surveyed to find their topics of conflict and the frequency and intensity of arguments. The researchers then correlated the frequency and nature of arguments with reports of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Topics of conflict fell broadly into two categories: violations of personal domain or conflicts over fairness and equity. Analysis showed that conflicts over personal space were associated with increased anxiety and lowered self-esteem. Issues around equality however, were associated with greater risk of depression at later stages.

Unfortunately for parents, the evidence is that direct intervention in sibling squabbles while they are happening does not seem to help. The best strategy for parents is to have pre-established household rules to protect personal space (like knock before entering a room) and maintain equality in treatment .

Of course sibling relationships can also have positive psychological effects and the researchers plan to study that next. In the meantime the best strategy might be to love your brother as…well, your brother (or sister).

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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