Although problems with siblings certainly exist, the impact of siblings on the social development of children is more positive than negative. Children learn many social skills from brothers and sisters, and sibling influence is especially valuable in many cultures throughout the world in which older siblings act as caregivers of younger siblings. Also, having older siblings is positively related to young children's cognitive development, especially the development of theory of mind. Theory of mind refers to an understanding of human mental processes such as trying to understand a playmate's anger or determining when a sibling will be generous. In addition to age and language ability, having at least one older brother or sister has a significant impact on children's cognitive development. It has been estimated that regarding theory of mind development, two older siblings are equivalent to approximately 1 year of chronological age. Furthermore, children learn valuable lessons when they adjust to the arrival of a new sibling (Volling, McElwain, & Miller, 2002). Where there are siblings in a family, however, there are inevitable spats and conflicts. Although parents may fail to appreciate it at the time, these interactions usually have a positive influence on children's developing ability to resolve conflict. Furthermore, unilateral oppositions of young children are likely to be imbedded in the midst of positive interchanges, and after their mild spats young children are likely to remain near one another and to continue their positive interaction (Vandell & Bailey, 1995).
How parents respond to young children's conflicts with their siblings makes a difference in how children resolve these conflicts, how they feel about themselves in relation to their siblings, and whether or not they will benefit from sibling rivalry and conflict. Vandell and Bailey (1995) summarized the following parental influences on siblings' ability to resolve conflict. First, punitive parenting approaches are associated with high levels of sibling conflict. Second, conflicts are minimized when children's emotional needs are met by their parents and there is no favored child in the family. Third, when parents act as mediators of siblings' conflicts by referring to moral principles as well as to children's feelings, young children engage in relatively mature forms of conflict, using justification for their actions and moral reasoning themselves. Fourth, parents need to be sensitive in their interventions, keeping in mind that parental interruption of constructive sibling conflicts might deprive young children of the opportunity to develop necessary social problem-solving skills. Finally, although sibling rivalry is inevitable and often has a positive impact on children's development, high levels of sibling jealousy often signal problems in family relationships. For example, according to Volling et al. (2002), young children display more sibling jealously when they have less secure attachment to their mothers, and when their parents have more negative than positive marital relationships. In explaining the relationship between negative marital relationships and higher levels of jealousy among preschool children, Volling and colleagues suggested that more positive marital relationships help preschool children to regulate their behavior. Another factor, identified as helpful in managing sibling jealousy, was when preschool children have a better understanding of others' emotions. Preschoolers are cognitively capable of understanding others' emotions if parents assist them in this process. The parenting strategy of induction is an excellent choice for helping young children to develop empathy for others. The combination of greater social understanding and empathy training helps preschoolers understand, for example, why parents direct more attention to a younger sibling (e.g., He's my baby brother and Mommy and Daddy have to rock him and carry him because he cries a lot).
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