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Siblings help boys learn sympathy, study finds
Brother and sister
Brothers benefit just as much as sisters from the sibling relationship, which can help them develop sympathy and prosocial behaviors in ways other relationships can't. - photo by Mark A. Philbrick

Boys benefit just as much as girls from the sibling relationship, which can help them develop sympathy and prosocial behaviors in ways other relationships can’t, a new study found.

Brigham Young University family life professor Dr. Laura Padilla-Walker surveyed 308 sets of adolescent siblings over three years for the study looking at how sibling relationships affect prosocial behavior, problem behavior, depression and anxiety in both girls and boys. Her findings were published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence.

Padilla-Walker controlled for parent-child relationships as well as friendships to confirm what she suspected would be true: siblings matter in the development of positive characteristics like sympathy and prosocial behavior.

“We found that siblings were still unique,” Padilla-Walker said. “Not unique in terms of that they were related to different things, but that they still mattered after taking into account probably the other most important relationships that kids this age have. So that’s good news for siblings. There is something about siblings that is different from both parents and friends that matters over and above those other relationships.”

The study differed from others in its controls of both parent and friend relationships, demographics, as well as its findings that sibling relationships mattered to boys and girls equally. Boys have typically reported these relationships are less important than girls have.

In previous literature concerning friendship, girls reported having more intimate, close relationships whereas boys reported having larger groups of friends that are less intimate. Not so for sibling relationships, Padilla-Walker found.

“Our findings look like, at least for siblings, there was no gender difference in terms of sibling affection,” she said. “In boys and girls, sibling affection was promoting sympathy, it was promoting pro-social behavior, it was protecting against problem behaviors. And boys really need that. They are getting it from other relationships as well, but not near as much as girls are from those relationships.”

Padilla-Walker believes siblings have the advantage because of age similarity and frequency of interactions.

“Siblings have a unique role,” Padilla-Walker said. “Just the sheer number of interactions with another person, especially fighting, helps you to learn how to take another person’s perspective, and care about another person, and comfort another person.”

The longevity of the study also helped researchers understand how these sibling relationships affected individuals down the road.

“Siblings matter over the long term, it’s not just that they matter right now,” Padilla-Walker said. “It’s a lot harder to say that something that matters now matters two years from now. And that’s what our study shows, is that sibling relationship, sibling affection and sibling hostility today matters for child outcomes two years later. And that’s pretty robust to be able to find that so far down the road.”

Padilla-Walker was careful to note that while it is normal for siblings to fight, parents should also to take the time to help steer those many interactions toward positivity and affection.

“Sibling relationships aren’t always good and if they’re not good, they have the power to be pretty damaging,” she said. “(Parents can) find a balance of promoting the natural affection they might have for each other and decrease the fighting.”