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Influences on Sibling Relationships

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

The family constellation, or structure of the family, the relationships within the family, and the characteristics of the individual children all impact sibling relationships. Family constellation refers to the number and sex of the adults and children including the birth order, type of relationship (biological, adopted, stepparent or sibling), age, and spacing of the children. Although all relationships in the family are important, the parent-child relationships have the greatest impact on sibling relationships. Individual differences among siblings also impact their relationships. When children are younger, temperament is important in sibling relationships but for older children, relationships are influenced by their personality and social and cognitive skills. Family life varies greatly and many factors influence the outcome for children.

Birth Order

The relationship between birth order and an individual's personality has been debated since Alfred Adler (1928) described specific characteristics of children according to their birth order. He also coined the phrase "sibling rivalry." Although a number of factors affect the outcomes for children, many authorities believe that children's birth order plays a special role in their destiny.

Firstborn Children

Firstborn children, who are often surrogates for their parents as caregivers, teachers, and models, enjoy a greater status/power position in relationship to their younger siblings. This difference becomes more pronounced as the age gap increases for at least up to four years. In children's eyes, status/power is conferred most heavily on the eldest son (Furman and Buhremester, 1985). Older girls are more often good teachers and nurturers for younger children (Cirirelli, 1972). Older boys, on the other hand, tend to be better stimulators and models (Cirirelli, 1972). The oldest sibling feels more rivalry over the birth of the second child than other birth orders do toward a new baby. This is because the firstborn has had the full attention of parents and now has to share their affections. The adverse effects of this dethronement can be modified if parents prepare the older child for the changes and give her or him special attention after the new baby arrives. In this case, the older sibling often becomes protective of the new family member (Adler, 1928; Teti, Sakin, Kucera, Corns, and Eiden, 1996).

Firstborn children tend to have distinct personality traits. Many studies depict these children as more adultlike, achievement-oriented, verbal, conservative, controlling of subordinates, and displaying a higher self-concept, but more anxious and less popular with peers than children born later (Lahey, Hammer, Crumrine, and Forehand, 1980; Zajonc, 1983). Success seems to fit firstborn children. Many firstborns show leadership qualities. Alfred Adler said firstborns were in a favorable position being larger and stronger, but, to keep their position, they also had to be more clever (1928). In studies as early as Galton's English Men of Science (1874), disproportionate numbers of firstborns have achieved eminence. A higher percentage of firstborn children have become scientists, professors, presidents, Rhodes scholars, and astronauts. More firstborns have been finalists in the National Merit Scholarship tests compared to any other birth order (Muzi, 2000). This advantage may be explained by the fact that firstborns have only adults for language models and social interactions in the most formative period while their siblings are influenced by their predecessors in the family.

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