If you have siblings, you'll know what it's like to have to share your parents' toys and love. They can be a real pain in the ass on many occasions, and a source of arguing, yelling and kicking. But they're also there to help you if you fall down on the playground or get into financial trouble when you grow up. Despite this, psychological research often largely ignores the importance of sibling relationships.
As ‘Psychology Today‘ reports, the inexplicable neglect began with Sigmund Freud himself. The founder of psychoanalysis refers to the sibling relationship only five times in his two dozen volumes of work. More than a century later, only during the last two decades have researchers begun to conduct meaningful studies on how siblings shape each other's lives.
Since Freud's time, psychological and psychiatric research often largely ignores the importance of sibling relationships
Just as parents are critical in childhood, so are siblings despite the fact that psychoanalysts often overlook them. They play with them more than anyone else and are often the ones with whom one shares the longest relationship in life. From their earliest days together, siblings exert a profound influence on each other's healthy growth and well-being.
A new book by psychiatrist Robert Waldinger reaffirms the importance of sibling relationships. Using data from several Harvard studies, he has determined that “good relationships keep us happier, healthier, and help us live longer.” Participants who had poorer relationships with their siblings were also more likely to suffer from both major depression and drug use.
The sibling relationship was more crucial to lifetime well-being than other factors such as childhood closeness to parents, childhood emotional problems, parental divorce, or even marriage and career. It stands to reason, then, that sibling conflict can be stressful not only for feuding siblings, but also for entire families, and can contribute substantially to depression and loneliness among adults. Other studies have corroborated these findings.
Participants who had poorer relationships with their siblings were also more likely to suffer from both major depression and drug use.
Recent studies have indicated that sibling relationships have a significant influence on development. For example, adolescents who perceived that their siblings validated their beliefs and feelings reported higher levels of self-esteem, and sibling support and a strong sibling relationship correlate with better academic performance. For children in or at risk of poverty, with conditions such as family discord, parental mental illness, and/or divorce, the constant presence of an emotionally stable person, such as an older sibling, improved their chances of becoming a balanced adult. In addition, the support and closeness of siblings is associated with reduced levels of loneliness and depression.
What can parents do?
First, never make comparisons or take sides when arguing. Favoritism creates competition and conflict. It is best to train them to get along and help them develop conflict management skills.
Never make comparisons or take sides when they argue. Favoritism creates competition and conflict
It's a good idea to create opportunities for siblings to foster a close relationship through shared family activities: sports, board games, regular events such as a weekly family walk or movie night, as well as fostering close relationships with friends and family. One study found that preschoolers who had at least one positive friendship relationship before a sibling was born were more likely to have a positive relationship with their new brother or sister.
Waldinger recommends that people of all ages, especially adults, support each other in relationships. Relationships are complicated and can be challenging, Waldinger admits, but he encourages people to commit to the challenge of maintaining lifelong connections. It's worth the investment, he says, because his research shows that the strength of connections with family and friends is what makes life full and meaningful.
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