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Archive for the ‘Sibling Relationships’ Category

Dr. Barbara Cunningham practices marriage and family therapy in San Diego, utilizing a family systems, strength-based approach when counseling couples and individuals. Notably, siblings are the first peer relationship that children experience. In some ways, the sibling relationship history may be a template upon which other very close peer relationships may be built throughout the life course, including the marital relationship. Sibling birth order may also be an important factor in looking at adults’ manner of “being” in their mature relationships with close others. 

In 2006, Dr. Cunningham completed her doctoral dissertation. It is entitled A Resiliency-Based, Bowen Family Systems Approach to Treating a Sibling Survivor of Homicide: A Case Study. One of the topics in her literature review included siblings. The history of one’s sibling relationships may, in fact, be relevant to one’s capacity to develop fulfilling intimate relationships as an adult. What follows is the research cited on siblings in Dr. Cunningham’s dissertation:

The Sibling Relationship

“The relationships in life that usually endure the longest are those between siblings (McGoldrick, Anderson, & Walsh, 1989).  Most people experience the death of parents a generation before they die, and their children live a generation longer.  Marital partners usually do not know one another until early adulthood.  Friendships that last from earliest childhood till the end of life are rare.  Thus, McGoldrick et al. noted that “our siblings share more of our lives genetically and contextually than anyone else” (p. 246).  In this sense, the sibling relationship is distinctive from all other human relationships.  Siblings have a shared personal and familial history, and this history includes experiences, values, and traditions.  Brothers and sisters are each other’s first playmates and confidants, even sharing 50% of their genetic composition (Wray, 2003).  Carter and McGoldrick (1999) pointed out that “the more time siblings spend with one another and the fewer siblings there are, the more intense their relationships are likely to be” (p. 154).

In a longitudinal study of successful aging among men from the Harvard classes of 1938-1944, the single best predictor of emotional health at age 65 was having had a close relationship with one’s sibling in college.  This was more predictive than childhood closeness to parents, emotional problems in childhood or parental divorce, and even more predictive than having had a successful marriage or career (Valliant, 1977).

Birth order has a significant role in later experiences with marital partners, colleagues, and friends (Toman, 1976).  Because siblings are an individual’s earliest peer relationship, he or she is probably most at ease in other relationships that reproduce familiar sibling patterns of birth order and gender (Carter & McGoldrick, 1999).  Although not always honored or acknowledged as leaders, firstborn sisters are often assigned the role of caretaker of disabled family members (Carter & McGoldrick, 1999).

Bank and Kahn (1997) interpreted the sibling bond from a psychoanalytic perspective, basing their conclusions on an in-depth study of 100 clinical case histories in which the sibling relationship was problematic.  They identified three conditions for the development of a strong sibling bond in childhood:  (a) high access between siblings, (b) the need for meaningful personal identity, and (c) insufficient parental influence. Processes of identification with the sibling constitute the essence of the sibling relationship.  According to Bank and Kahn, both close and distant sibling identification can lead to rigid relationships and clinical problems.

            Teti (1992) noted the remarkable changes that occur in the life of the first-born child with the birth of a sibling.  The older child must adapt to sharing parental attention with an infant.  Teti found that older siblings might display increased anxiety and aggression toward either the new baby or their parents.  Furthermore, Teti noted that older children frequently regress developmentally in areas such as toilet training.  There are individual differences in how children adjust to this change, however.  Two studies found that in families in which parents involved the older sibling in the care of the baby and discussed the baby’s needs and desires, siblings had particularly close relationships later (Dunn & Kendrick, 1982; Howe & Ross, 1990).  Crouter and McHale (1989) noted that siblings spend a great deal of time together in early childhood, and, in fact, spend more time together than do parents with their children.  In the early stages of the sibling relationship, the older sibling usually takes on a leadership role and teaches the younger sibling, while the younger sibling often imitates the older sibling.

            In middle childhood, sibling relationships tend to be more egalitarian than those in early childhood.  The younger sibling may become more cognitively sophisticated, allowing for a greater ability to communicate and negotiate with older siblings (Buhrmester & Furman, 1990; Vandell, Minnett, & Santrock, 1987).

            As siblings enter the adolescent phase of development, their relationships become more distant than in childhood.  Affection and hostility levels are lower in adolescence than in adulthood (Buhrmester & Furman, 1990; Stocker & Dunn, 1994).  Additionally, siblings spend less time together as adolescents than they did as children.  Supportive sibling relationships have been linked to decreased anxiety and greater maturity in young adolescents (East & Rook, 1992).

            Research on sibling relationships in childhood and adolescence has shown that children’s sociability is associated with sibling warmth, and emotionality is linked to conflict and rivalry in sibling relationships (Brody, Stoneman, & Burke, 1987; Stocker, Dunn, & Plomin, 1989).  Furthermore, the match between siblings’ temperaments is related to the quality of their relationship (Munn & Dunn, 1988).

            The research on sibling relationships for individuals during late adolescence, a period characterized by increasing independence and identity formation, has received scant attention (Tseung & Schott, 2004).  Tseung and Schott investigated late adolescents’ perceptions of the quality of their sibling relationships in a British sample of 165 participants, using the Sibling Relationship Inventory.  Significant correlations were found between sibling affection and the capacity to have close friendships.

            Stocker, Lanthier, and Furman (1997) offer one of the few studies on sibling relationships in early adulthood.  They found that such relationships, like those in childhood, varied in the areas of warmth, conflict, and rivalry.  In another observational study, it was noted that young adult siblings who felt close to one another had fewer power struggles, more positive affect, and lower heart rate activity than siblings who rated their relationships as distant (Shortt & Gottman, 1997).

            Recent research has found associations between the quality of the sibling relationship in young adulthood and affective-perspective taking.  Young adults who rated their sibling relationships as close had higher scores on measures of emotional and cognitive empathy than did those who rated their sibling relationships as distant (Shortt & Gottman, 1997).

            Scharf (2005) conducted a study with 116 emerging adults and adolescents.  The subjects completed questionnaires and were interviewed about their relationship with a sibling.  Emerging adults were found to spend less time and to be less involved in joint activities with their sibling than adolescents, but they reported being more involved in emotional exchanges with and feeling more warmth toward their siblings.  Narrative analyses of the questionnaires showed that emerging adults had a more mature perception of their relationship with their siblings.  Unlike in adolescence, the researchers found that the quality of emerging adults’ relationships with their siblings was less related to their relationship with their parents.

            Many theorists and researchers have discussed the associations between sibling relationships and parent-child relationships.  Dunn (1992) found that in families in which parent-child relationships are warm and supportive, high levels of affection also characterize sibling relationships.  Conflictual parent-child relationships are associated with sibling relationships fraught with rivalry and conflict.  In addition to associations between each sibling’s relationship with his or her parent, differences in parents’ behavior toward each sibling are related to the quality of sibling relationships.  Siblings have more positive relationships with one another when parents treat them similarly (Brody, Stoneman, & Burke, 1987).

            Associations between the quality of parents’ marital or extra-marital relationships and children’s’ sibling relationships have been documented in the literature (Brody, Stoneman, McCoy, & Forehand, 1992; Kerr & Bowen, 1988; MacKinnon, 1989; Stocker, Ahmed, & Stall, 1997).  Despite the positive links between marital conflict and hostile sibling relationships, some research suggests that siblings can act as supports for each other.  For example, Jenkins and Smith (1990) found that in families with high levels of marital conflict, children with close relationships with brothers and sisters had fewer adjustment difficulties than those with conflictual sibling relationships.

            One of the most consistent and striking findings about siblings is that they differ from one another on most measures of personality and psychopathology as much as any two people randomly selected from the population (Dunn & Plomin, 1990).  Why should sisters and brothers who grow up in the same family and share 50% of their genes be so different?  Researchers have discovered that even though they come from the same family, siblings experience different environments within that family.  Parents treat siblings differently, and these differences have been linked to differences in siblings’ outcomes (Dunn & Plomin, 1990).

Murray Bowen (1978) offered a way to understand family emotional processes that create sibling differences.  In a live-in family research project at the National Institute of Mental Health, he studied how it was that the same parents could raise one quite impaired child and another fairly normal child.  He theorized that the unit of treatment is the family system, not the individual.  He postulated that if parents do not work on difficulties they are having with each other in their marriage or relationship, then one or more children would be vulnerable to filling this breach in their relationship.  The child who is fortunate enough to avoid intense focus by one or more parents is freer to grow and develop.

According to M. E. Kerr:

The usual way that marital distance places one child in harm’s way is that the mother focuses less energy on her husband and turns to the child to gratify desires for a comfortable emotional connection.  In the process, the child becomes so important to her well being that he easily triggers her worries as well.  This mix of needs and fears cements a powerful connection.  The father invests much of his energy in work and is usually less entangled emotionally with the child.  However, he participates equally in the child focus by playing his part in marital distance and getting anxiously entangled in his wife’s relationship with the child.  (personal communication, October 29, 2005)

 

M. E. Kerr explained:

If one child fills the breach in the parents’ relationship, his sibling is relatively off the hook.  The parents expend their needs and fears on the overly involved child.  It enables them to be more relaxed and at their best with his sibling.  The sibling’s reality needs rather than their anxiety largely govern their interactions with him. Developing in a less emotional climate, the sibling tunes into social cues, but without being programmed to overreact to them.  (personal communication, October 30, 2005)

 

Kerr (personal communication, October 29, 2005) noted that functioning between an overly involved sibling and his brother or sister often become apparent during toddlerhood.  One child may be more easily bored and depend more completely on his or her mother for direction.  The freer sibling can entertain himself and manage himself more independently.  By the time the child reaches school age, the freer child is not as dependent on his teacher for approval and direction.  Peer relationships are freer and less of an issue for a child who is free of intense focus by one or more parents.

The overly focused upon child will be more prone to rebel or move into harm’s way during adolescence, according to Kerr (personal communication, October 29, 2005). His rebellious streak parallels his or her difficulty in being an individual while the freer adolescent sails through this life cycle stage more easily.  Kerr theorized:

The overly involved child may function fairly well until stumbling badly in trying to make the transition into adult life.  At whatever point problems surface, the parents intensify their focus on the child in an effort to fix him.  This further escalates the tension, particularly if the child does not respond.  (personal communication, October 28, 2005)

 

Kerr emphasized that

a parent being overly involved with a child is harmful because the ongoing emotionally intense interactions over the years of his development program the child’s well being and functioning to depend heavily on relationships….like a moth drawn to a bright light, he becomes preoccupied with [mother’s] attention, approval, expectations, and distress.  His mood and motivation become linked to how she and others view him.  Being ensnarled in the emotionality constrains the child’s instinctive urge to develop his individuality.  (personal communication, October 29, 2005)

In the sections above, the nature of the sibling relationship has been explored from individual, systemic, and lifespan perspectives. “

Relationship counseling may be an avenue toward encouraging personal growth in the context of marital or couples challenges. Relationship counseling may also be an avenue toward resolving chronic or acute issues between partners. To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s marriage and family therapy counseling practice, visit her website at http://www.cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 990-6203 for a complimentary phone consultation.

 

 

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