By J. Kelly McCoy
Growing up, the person with whom you had more slumber parties, shared more television
sitcoms, had more make-believe games, and played with more on hot summer days was likely to be someone you didn't even choose to have around, your brother or sister. The relationships children have with their brothers and sisters, or siblings, are likely to be some of the most intense relationships they will experience. While children may try to preserve relationships with friends by avoiding conflict, sibling relationships, because they don't operate under the same threat of termination, are likely to experience a greater frequency of both intense warmth and conflict.
Parents need to recognize that siblings may experience a certain amount of conflict, competition
and rivalry. However, if conflict occurs within the context of a supportive sibling relationship, these
conflictual experiences help children learn that positive relationships don't just happen, but rather must be built.
Children's greater familiarity with their brothers or sisters provides them with an environment
where they can learn appropriate interpersonal skills in preparation for the interactions they will have
outside the family, particularly with peers. Within their sibling relationships, children can learn the
likely implications of their behaviors on children outside the family.
Siblings can have an impact on one another for both good or ill. For example, older siblings'
involvement in illicit drugs and alcohol, as well as deviant and sexual behavior, have all been
predictive of younger siblings' involvement in similar behavior. In contrast, brothers and sisters have
also been found to provide a protective buffer for one another when having to face such negative
experiences as parental divorce or difficulty in establishing good friendships.
As siblings grow their relationships are likely to change. During childhood, siblings experience
an increase in conflict and a reduction in support that continues until it peaks at around ages 12 to 13 years old. This is followed by a continued increase in support and decrease in conflict as siblings move into middle to late adolescence. This pattern reflects a decline in the intensity, but not necessarily the quality, of sibling relationships, which continues to exist until individuals have raised their own children and are again able to focus on the sibling relationships in their original family.
Contrary to current media attention, parents do make a difference. Regarding siblings, parents
often create very different environments in which their children grow up. These differences result
from, among other things, three primary characteristics: parents' personalities, their attitudes about
parenting, and their children's personalities. The interaction between these three factors can
dramatically change how parents rear each of their children. Children often expect their parents to
demonstrate a certain amount of unequal attention, with younger siblings receiving more attention as a result of their greater needs and demands. However, children and adolescents will pick up on
excessive difference in parental attention whether it is directed toward the older or younger siblings.
When this difference is detected, children respond accordingly. Because our children are each so
uniquely different, the challenge is in making your parenting different, but equal.
Thus, while our sibling relationships are likely to be some of the most challenging we will
experience, they can also be some of our most rewarding; they are one of the few relationships which we know will always be there for us. For better or worse, our sibling relationships are likely to be the longest relationships we will experience during our lifetime. As a result, we should do those things that will allow our's and our children's sibling relationships to become something that can last a life time.
J. Kelly McCoy is a member of the faculty in the Department of Home and Family at Brigham Young University - Idaho