The 4 Types Of Sibling Relationships

Growing up with a sibling is complicated. Siblings get along – and don’t get along – in many different ways. But there’s a simple principle  – when expanded a bit – that guides a straightforward way of making sense of the type of relationship siblings have at a given point in time and development. (I’ve said it that way because the nature of the relationship can change over time … but more on that later).

First, the simple principle. You know that you can categorize a sibling relationship in terms of both positive and negative dimensions. Siblings express different degrees of positivity towards each other – we think about it in terms of how much warmth/affection they display, how much they like spending time with each other, how much they laugh when they are together, how they may express concern for each other. Siblings also (no surprise here) also can exhibit lots of negativity – fighting, arguing, hostility, and rivalry.

Okay, now the expansion. The degree of positivity in the sibling relationship is not highly associated with the degree of negativity. The formal way of saying this statistically is that they are “orthogonal” dimensions – they are not that highly correlated with each other. The better way of saying it is that knowing how much positivity siblings share does not necessarily tell us how much negativity exists in their relationship. You can have high levels of both, high levels of one or the other, or low levels of both.

So … the implication is that you can create, in a simple and descriptive way, 4 types of sibling relationships. The trick is to “rate” each dimension – positivity and negativity – as either high or low. Think of high as “more of rather than less of” and think of low as “less of rather than more of.” Yes, this is an arbitrary way of doing it – but one that actually works quite well empirically in research studies. Once you do that, then you get 4 types of sibling relationships:


Why are these typologies helpful? They tell us a lot about how a given pair of siblings influence each other:

  • Kids who are low on both positivity and negativity tend not to influence each other so much – they kind of quietly co-exist with not a lot of interaction.
  • The low positivity/high negativity sibs are the ones who constantly fight and argue and don’t like spending much time together. They can be problematic because they can reinforce hostile and coercive behaviors which spill out to other relationships outside the home.
  • Sibs who are high positivity/low negativity tend to complement (and compliment) each other – they function like buddies and as support systems.
  • The high positive/high negative sibs are an interesting lot – they spend lots of time together, have mutual friends, are very connected socially, and … are statistically more likely to break rules and get into trouble together, particularly in the teen years. They are the most complex developmentally and clinically and often have similar trajectories … which sometimes are not very good ones.

There are a few key points to keep in mind. Like any type of categorical system, this one makes probabilistic claims, not definitive ones. Age differences matter, as does gender composition. When there are more than 2 kids in a family, all kinds of dynamics exist, including a variety of potentially different sibling relationships. Importantly, sibling relationships can change over time – and as the sibling relationship extends through many developmental phases, it may morph more than once.

All that said, this typology offers a way to think about the different ways that siblings may, or may not, influence each other – and speaks to the range of experiences that siblings have throughout their life.

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