Posts Tagged ‘ sibling relationships ’

The 4 Types Of Sibling Relationships

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

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.

What You Need to Know About Birth Order
What You Need to Know About Birth Order
What You Need to Know About Birth Order

Baby Sister and Big Sister via

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The “Favorite” Child Thing: It’s More Complicated Than It Seems

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

By now you’ve probably heard about the daddy blogger generating lots of controversy by stating, in no uncertain terms, that he has a favorite child. Many parents find this to be troubling; others might think he’s being honest. What I want to add to the mix is that the issue of favoritism is actually pretty complicated when you study families over time. Let me explain by making three points that I’ve discovered after years of observing families.

First, I do believe that some parents play favorites. That said, you can’t really define “favoritism” by getting only one person’s take – you really need to study the family as a whole and see how the family system works. Maybe a parent thinks – and articulates – that they have a favorite. This doesn’t necessarily mean that this is a positive thing for the “favorite.” There can be increased expectations and pressure to live up to the billing. There can be, perhaps surprisingly, an insecurity that comes with that status. Sometimes a child that is favored will feel like life at the “top” can be challenging – so that when affection or attention gets shown to another sibling, they start to wonder if they are losing their status. So if you do have a “favorite” keep in mind that it’s probably not especially healthy for any of the kids.

These observations apply to families where there is a blatant favoritism. My second point is that I don’t typically see such extreme favoritism in most families, despite the claim that 95% of parents have a favorite and the rest are lying. Rather, parents respond differently to different traits in their kids. Most typically, kids see themselves as getting the short end of the stick, one way or another! A daughter might complain that the parents are stricter with her than with her brother when it comes to social matters. A younger child might feel dumped on because they have to wear hand me downs. The list goes on and on. Most siblings are really good at figuring out what the other sibs get – but if you prompt them enough they also know what benefits they get as well. (I know, because I’ve done this in lots of studies). So, generally, this whole favoritism thing, in the vast majority of families, is a very nuanced thing. Each kid is different, each parents behaves somewhat differently with each kid, and there are positives and negatives that go along with that.

My final point is that these dynamics can change a lot over time. Parents may “like” one kid better than another at particular moments in time because they are easier to deal with. Think about having a young teen who is acting like, well, a young teen, and a sweet little 6-year-old who loves being with you. Okay, the young teen might cause you a bit more grief. But that might change seven years from now. And that’s how it goes in families and with kids over time. The whole thing is very dynamic. So labeling a “favorite” over the long haul is not as straightforward as it might seem.

So where does this leave us? Given that siblings will inevitably be different people (even identical twins, as I will illustrate in a future blog post this week), I think most healthy families work because parents respect those differences and in fact embrace them. And all the other stuff is just called a typical day.

Image of father with sons via

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When A Sibling Has Special Needs: What Kids Think

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Sibling relationships are always complicated – there’s love, there’s hate, there’s companionship, there’s rivarlry. But what’s it like having a sibling with special needs?

I’ve had an opportunity to work with kids who have a sibling with medical and/or developmental special needs as part of a program run at the Schwartz Center for Children in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. In small group meetings conducted over a 5-week period, these kids – who were between 7 and 12 years old – would talk about their relationship with their siblings. And for the most part, they deal with the same positives and negatives of having a sibling as would any other kids. There were two things, though, that were especially salient to them: 

  1. Sibling aggression. Some of the sibs would sometimes hit or yell, seemingly out of the blue. This was typically when a sibling had autism and was younger – not so much the case when a sibling had a medical special need.
  2. Intrusion on their time. Parents have to devote special time to kids with developmental and/or medical issues. This can not only take time away from a sibling, but also interfere with everyday pleasures. A few kids mentioned how they can’t always watch a favorite TV show. Other kids talked about how plans can change quickly. And things like going out to dinner aren’t always easy or fun.

These siblings were keen observers of their siblings and their families. They also were able to explore, via games and conversation, ways of making sense of their siblings’ behavior. They developed a deeper understanding of the communication challenges their siblings face (this was achieved in part through the perspective-taking games like charades and the telephone game). At the end of the 5-week period, they all said that they learned that their sibling did not mean to hurt them or be annoying – even though those things would still happen. Most importantly, they each came up with one thing to change at home to help them cope with their sibling (e.g., asking a parent to spend more time with them).

Most of all, they all could easily describe positives in their relationship. In particular, they all enjoyed finding ways to make their sibling laugh – and they were quite good at it! And they took pride in knowing that they often help their parents and directly help their siblings.

This was a very inspiring group to spend time with! They taught me a lot.

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One More Thought On Sibling Favoritism: What About Labeling?

Friday, September 30th, 2011

To wrap up some thoughts on the sibling favoritism topic – which is quite complex – there’s one more thing to consider: labeling.

Last fall, Brett Paesel wrote a great article in Parents magazine on the tendency for parents to label their children. As in:

  • Child A is the “smart” one
  • Child B is the “cute” one

Brett talked about her own experiences doing this with her sons, and how labeling can be reinforced by other family members (for example, grandparents). She acknowledged how labeling often has some roots in reality. And she discussed how it can get distorted – and how parents (and others) may need to consciously attend to the times when the smart one does something cute, and when the cute one does something smart.

I remind readers of this article because these types of things can also contribute to the different experiences siblings have growing up.

So more questions for you all:

  • Do you label your kids?
  • Does it get extreme?
  • Do you think they are aware of it?
  • If you do this – do you want to change it?

P.S. If you haven’t seen the prior posts on siblings and favoritism, click here to read about the issue of playing favorites, and click here for a summary of what you all said thus far

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