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Greatest Potential of Sibling Relationships

Info: 4737 words (19 pages) Essay
Published: 19th Aug 2021 in Sociology

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Siblings play very unique roles in each other’s lives in several distinct ways. Sibling relationships have the greatest potential for a lengthy existence and one that most individuals nurture and maintain throughout the entire life course (White, 2001). Siblings are also more likely than other familial pair to share a common lineage and heritage, living environment, and passage through particular life events. Furthermore, siblings tend to be more egalitarian in their relationships with one another than other family members, certainly more egalitarian in nature than the parent-child or grandparent-grandchild relationship (Gentry, 2001). Only ten to twenty percent of individuals grow up an only child, making sibling relationships highly prevalent (Cicirelli, 1982). Previous studies indicate that siblings often have a profound and significant presence in the lives of individuals. They are integral and fundamental sources of affection, encouragement, support, comfort and friendship to one another (Cicirelli, 1995). Additionally, among older adults, a sibling is often the only person that has known an individual his or her entire life. Therefore it is not surprising that previous research has found that along with parents, siblings form critical reference points in the development of identity, attachment and support (White, 2001). Sometimes, support from siblings appears to compensate for a lack of support from other members of the social network, such as parents and/or friends (Milevsky, 2004). Eriksen and Gerstel (2002) found that a majority of adults give some form of help to at least one of their siblings within a year’s time, many on a monthly basis, suggesting that siblings often act as important social safety nets. Because a sibling relationship can have such a profound significance on an individual, it is one that is constantly analyzed. However, previous research either concentrates on the relationship in childhood years, or in later life. There is considerably less research conducted on sibling relationships specifically on solidarity and support in the early and middle years of adulthood. This specific time within adulthood is significant because it is here that the bonds of strong future support are forged and solidified. As people live longer, have fewer children, remain single, or choose not to have families, their social networks may decrease, and the sibling bond often emerges as a vital source of support (Volkom, 2006). The assumption is that as medical research and technologies progress, individuals are living longer and more robust lives, potentially making strong sibling relationships critical because they provide necessary social safety nets in later life. Therefore, as we enter the 21st century, we can predict the need for strong sibling relationships. As the baby boom cohort ages and the cost of long-term health care continues to increase, adult siblings will need to work cooperatively in order to care for their elderly parents, and more importantly, each other. Thus, we can better understand these implications for the future by studying and understanding the sibling relationships of today.

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Since this review explicitly centers on both solidarity and support, it is important to define the terms in regards to how previous studies have utilized them. Past studies have conceptualized solidarity as closeness, value consensus, contact, and exchanges (Bengtson & Roberts, 1991). Since the focus is on the degree to which family and siblings are integrated, the specific type of solidarity is based upon kinship. Support can, to an extent, be considered an indicator of solidarity. Support between siblings theoretically is influenced by family structure and solidarity. An observation of heightened support reflects actual behavior, thereby making the content and benefits of sibling relationships tangible. Support is specifically defined as both emotional and instrumental support. Emotional support is exemplified by the actions that individuals do to make their sibling feel loved and cared for or reinforce their sibling’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem (e.g. providing encouragement, talking over a problem, giving positive feedback, or advice); such support is often embodied in non-tangible types of assistance. By contrast, instrumental support pertains to the various types of tangible assistance that siblings may provide (e.g., help with housekeeping or chores, childcare, provision of transportation or assistance with repairs) (Spitze & Trent, 2006).

There have been quite a few recent sociological studies that have focused on the relationships and bonds that exist between family members. Most of these studies have corroborated theoretical notions that these important bonds do often exist between various members of a family, demonstrating the many ways modern families work to provide care and exchange economic resources. These studies have also identified that there is a cascading flow of support, aid and resource exchanges both up and down the generational line. Parents provide support and care throughout their children’s early lives (Mandemakers & Dykstra, 2008), and children reciprocate that support and care more and more as their parent’s age (Burr & Mutchler, 1999). A similar relationship can be found between grandparents and grandchildren. There are plenty of incidences where a grandparent raises a grandchild (Minkler & Fuller-Thomson, 2005), and often a grandchild will assist with support and care of an older grandparent in later life (Chan & Elder, 2000). Most of these studies, however, describe a vertical, exchange of resources between family members. Absent from these particular studies and corresponding discussions is the identification and relevance of the horizontal exchange of resources, support and care that exists among siblings. As family relationships across several generations are becoming increasingly important in American society, it is imperative that relationships between siblings are also methodically analyzed to better understand the dynamics that exist within these bonds. It is apparent that this belief is beginning to catch on in the sociological community as an increasing amount of research being conducted on the solidarity and support between siblings. However, these studies tend to focus on the relationship and exchange of support in either childhood or later life, presenting a gap in the literature on these interactions in early and middle adulthood specifically.

Numerous studies have determined the importance of siblings as a source of emotional support and instrumental aid in early and later life. As adolescents, the support given between siblings is more emotional in nature. Branje et al. found that siblings can be an important source of support for each other during adolescence, and thereby affect both each other’s externalizing behavior as well as each other’s internalizing behavior (2004). In the process of gaining autonomy and defining their identity, adolescents may seek help from their siblings, and therefore become important role models for each other. Tucker, McHale, and Crouter found that both older and younger siblings are viewed as sources of support in familial issues, and older siblings are in addition viewed as a source of support about nonfamilial issues such as social and scholastic activities (2001). Feinberg & Hetherington identified that siblings share a unique relationship, making them more likely to experience similar discrete family events, such as death, divorce, unemployment, a relocation or parental discord (2000). A shared traumatic experience between siblings often strengthens the bond between them and initiates lifelong exchange of emotional support. Other research has indicated that the more an individual interacts with a feeling of love for his/her sibling, the less depressive symptoms for that adolescent become observable, indicating an effectiveness of a strong bond with a sibling on positive emotional and psychological growth (Vogt Yuan, 2009).

Other research suggests that the sibling relationship changes over time. As sisters and brothers get older, the relationship becomes less obligatory and more voluntary (Martin, Anderson & Rocca; 2005). Additionally, the support and care given and received by older siblings incorporates resource exchanges as well as emotional reinforcement. Erikson and Gerstel’s research refutes the notion that siblings are largely symbolic ties in adult lives. They found that a majority of older adults give some form of help to at least one of their siblings within a year’s time, many on a monthly basis (2002). Volkom’s research characterizes the sibling relationship in later life as one of strong emotional ties, helping, and importance for the older adult’s well-being. Because a sibling can be a great helper, confidante, and friend in adulthood, contact with a sibling can also improve the physical health of an older adult (2006). White and Reidmann’s analysis (1992) of data taken from sample responses to a national survey of families and households is a clear illustration of how valued the sibling relationship is among adults. Half of the adults surveyed indicated they had contact with a sibling at least monthly. Nearly two-thirds of these respondents considered at least one brother or sister to be among their closest friends. About a third indicated they would call upon their sibling first when in need of emergency help.

Although these studies are high caliber investigations consisting of quality research and analysis, these studies fail to evaluate the relationship that exists between early and middle-aged adults. What is acknowledged is that during this time, the bond between siblings early and middle-aged is often transformed due to other significant concurrent life events, such as full-time employment, marriage, relocation, and birth of an offspring (Voorpostel & Blieszner, 2008). Another analysis by White and Reidmann yielded similar results. They postulate that early and middle-aged young people start to move to a separate residence, invest in economic or educational endeavors and establish intimate relationships with a romantic partner. This is paralleled by decreased intensity of interactions with family members (1992). White expounds on this idea in later research. She explains that underlying most interpretations of sibling relationships is the assumption of a hierarchy of kinship relationships. She states that the standard kinship model conceptualizes family bonds as a set of nested circles. During childhood, siblings typically are included within one’s inner circle or first tier of family social support. As people mature into adulthood, often distancing themselves geographically for their siblings and forming their own families, sibling relationships are commonly relegated to outer circle of second-tier status. The inner circle in adulthood is mainly reserved for parents, spouses and children (White, 2001). Bedford described an hourglass effect in sibling involvement, in which sibling closeness as well as interaction gradually decrease in early adulthood, are low in the middle adult years, and rise again in late adulthood and old age (1989). Other research has postulated that a decrease in contact during early adulthood is the reason why young adults reported lower levels of conflict with their siblings than adolescents, engaged in less quarreling, less antagonism, less competition, and less conflict related to power (Scharf et al.; 2004).

Thus, some previous researchers have hypothesized that the more that siblings grow apart and become immersed in their own separate lives, they have less opportunity to spend together ultimately limiting all interactions, including conflict. However, that hypothesis has been contested by others. Some research has indicated that a reduction in conflict may be attributable to emerging adult siblings’ greater ability to negotiate disagreements and their favoring negotiation over coercion (Laursen, Finkelstein, & Betts, 2001). Other research suggests that early adulthood fosters an addition of a new quality to the relationship between siblings. They can become a source of potential support, or an important source of advice, that can be relied on, despite the lower incidence of daily interaction or involvement. Once they leave home as young adults, the amount of help that they give one another is based on the similarity of their roles and their feelings of affection. During early and middle adulthood, they provide encouragement, emotional support, companionship, and occasionally financial support for each other. They also are usually relied upon for help during times of crisis, and typically cooperate with each other in order to care for their elderly parents (Goetting, 1986). Because marriage and parenthood create decidedly unique social worlds, similarities in marital and parental status may ensure help from particular siblings (Erikson and Gerstel, 2002). Milevsky conjointly touched upon sibling relationships in early adulthood. He also postulated that sibling support is related to adjustment in emerging adulthood (2004). However, he found that support from siblings appears to compensate for low support from other members of the social network such as parents and friends. His analysis is in complete contrast to other research hypothesizing that sibling relationships become diminished in early and middle adulthood, presenting a clear and present contradiction in the previous research on the subject. Furthermore, White and Riedmann found (1992) that frequency of contact decreases with age in late adolescence, stabilizes during early and middle adulthood, and declines sharply in later adulthood. White and Riedmann’s nationwide study (1992) of 7,700 older adults who had at least one living biological sibling, indicates that approximately half reported seeing or talking with their sibling at least monthly. The amount of contact was highest among pairs of sisters and lowest among pairs of brothers. Sister-brother pairs landed between the other two groupings. As anticipated, siblings who live closer have more contact. Those who lived with two miles of each other had the most contact. The eldest child, as well as siblings with higher income and education, and those with a living parent, reported the most frequent contact. White and Riedmann also found that biological siblings, living in blended families with half-siblings and step-siblings, reported less close relationships. Interestingly, those same respondents viewed their biological siblings as a close friend through the life cycle. A potential source of the conflicting results of young and middle aged adults’ relationships may be due to differences in research measures and sampling methods as well as the cross-sectional nature of the studies. Although these separate studies provide some insight to the relationships that exist among early and middle aged siblings, they are few and far between, they are not consistent in their findings, and they lack the thorough and robust analysis seen in the research pertaining to adolescent and older sibling relationships.

Because a connection in the literature is necessary, it is important to see how previous research has investigated the similar topics of solidarity and support among adolescent and older adult siblings. These studies provide an ample starting point for which to address the correlating relationships that exist among siblings in early and middle adulthood. When analyzed as a collective body, previous research provides several themes that are apparent in sibling relationships both in adolescence and later life. Sibling research has identified four specific variables that have to be considered when relationships between siblings are assessed: 1) the relative birth order, namely whether the sibling is younger or older, 2) the gender of the sibling, 3) the family size, namely whether there are two or more siblings within the family, and 4) the paternal framework in which the siblings were raised, namely whether it was a single-parent or dual-parent environment.

Because research has indicated that children’s experiences with siblings differ greatly depending on whether they are older or younger, any research on siblings should include birth order as a variable. Scharf et al. indicated that older siblings inherit some positions of authority and responsibility, and children were found to be satisfied more and to quarrel less with older siblings than with younger siblings (2004). Additionally, older siblings were described as being more a source of support and advice. Other research suggests that because most siblings differ in age, older siblings are likely to acquire experience and familiarity with certain issues, such as social life, schoolwork, and risky behavior, before their younger siblings do. In addition, parents may not be as knowledgeable as adolescents are about such nonfamilial experiences (Tucker, McHale & Crouter; 2001). For these reasons, older brothers and sisters may be invaluable guides for their less experienced younger siblings. This idea could also apply to young and middle aged siblings. An older sibling might undergo a major life transformation prior to a younger sibling (i.e. moving out, getting married, having a child), providing a unique and invaluable source of information and advice on that particular subject.

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Gender plays a substantial role in sibling relationships. This is evident in both research of adolescent siblings and older adult siblings. Previous researchers have concluded that sister-sister pairs had more contact and were emotionally closer than others (Spitze & Trent; 2006). Cicirelli found that the perception of a close bond with sisters by either men or women was related to well-being, as indicated by fewer symptoms of depression, while a close bond to brothers seemed to have little relevance for well-being (1989). White (2001) found that both being female and having sisters were associated with contact, exchange of support, and having a sibling as a close friend. Tests for statistical interaction suggested that women with sisters had the closest relations to siblings, whereas men with sisters fared better than men or women without sisters (White & Riedmann, 1992). White (2001) also reported that women, relative to men, increased levels of contact and help exchange with siblings over time. Previous research has also found that women were perceived to be more involved in their close relationships than men, and the sister-sister relationship was described as the most intensive bond among siblings. Among early adolescence, female siblings were most likely perceived to generate emotionally supportive outcomes (Howe et al. 2001). In contrast, participants in boy-boy sibling dyads reported less caring, less intimate exchange, and less coping resolution than participants in girl-girl dyads (Cole & Kerns, 2001). This is highly relevant to the solidarity and support among young adult siblings, especially relationships involving sisters. It could be hypothesized that certain significant life events, such as the birth of a child or a marriage could actually bring sisters, or a sister and brother, closer together by creating a scenario in which gender specific advice and/or support is relevant. Additionally, Spitze & Trent found that women reported giving and receiving more child care and chore support (i.e. cooking, cleaning), consistent with gendered patterns of household labor. More specifically, men with a sister are about a third as likely than women with a sister to provide child care or advice, and women with a brother are about a fifth as likely than those from sister pairs to help with chores, and about half as likely to give advice (2006). Thus, a woman with a sister will, in all likelihood, maintain a closer relationship with their sibling in early adulthood as opposed to a sister-brother or brother-brother sibling configuration.

Another prominent factor indentified by previous research is the size of the family. Researchers have proposed that adults from larger families exhibit greater affection and have more contact with all their siblings than those in smaller families. Based on this premise, researchers have found that older adults from larger families tend to have at least one sibling to whom they feel close than do those from smaller families (Connidis & Campbell, 1995). Studies also suggest that adults with a greater number of siblings perceive more support will be forthcoming and actually receive more help than those with fewer siblings (White & Reidmann, 1992), which is a pattern for receipt of help similarly noted among older adults. Eriksen and Gerstel (2002) found that those who have more siblings give significantly less total help to particular siblings, suggesting that having more siblings forces adults to act judiciously about what they give. Conversely, other researchers have found that siblings from smaller families may depend on each other more, relative to those from larger families who have more sisters or brothers to turn to in times of need (Tucker & Crouter, 2001). Thus, research on young and middle aged adults should include analysis of the family size and composition to observe whether or not having more siblings will affect solidarity and support amongst them.

Finally, the paternal framework present in a family has been shown to affect the relationship siblings have with each other. For example, growing up with both parents predicted more interactions among adult siblings, whereas those raised in singe parent families had significantly more diminished contact in later life (White & Riedmann, 1992). Poortman & Voorpostel’s research results adversely show that siblings from divorced families more often have conflict-laden relationships in adulthood than do siblings from intact families. There were, however, no differences between siblings from divorced and intact families regarding the more positive aspects of their relationships (i.e. relationship quality and contact frequency) (2009). It can then be hypothesized that a positive family atmosphere is likely to be related to warm sibling relationships, whereas a distressed atmosphere will probably be related to negative sibling relationships. In addition, Furman and Giberson (1995) suggested that conflicts with parents could increase the likelihood that children will be irritated and discharge their anger onto their siblings. Parents may influence their children’s interpersonal relationships directly by giving advice and intervening in their interactions and disputes (McHale et al., 2000), or indirectly by modeling social behavior or regulating their children’s emotions and behaviors (Parke & O’Neil, 1999). Previous research showed that children, whose relationships with parents were characterized by warmth, reported exhibiting less hostility and rivalry and more affection toward their siblings (Stocker & McHale, 1992). In contrast, parental assertion of power was related to a higher frequency of conflict between siblings (Furman & Giberson, 1995). Thus, contemporary demographic trends such as the rise in single-parent families and decrease in family size could be relevant to the solidarity and support of young and middle aged adults and should therefore be considered as contextually relevant to the study.


Past research and analysis has clearly demonstrated that these four variables are vital and necessary to any research on siblings. However, no one previous investigation, to my knowledge, has included a complete analysis of how these specific factors shape and mold the sibling relationships among young individuals emerging from adolescence into adulthood. Additionally, variability in the extent of sibling support has typically been explored by studying sibling dyads from different families. However, comparisons of the experiences of two or more siblings from the same family are extremely rare. Therefore, information from a series of siblings across different families is important. Information on more dynamic family structures including multiple siblings ranging in age and gender is, to my knowledge, non-existent. The addition of the relationship of half and step siblings would could also be valuable. Finally, nearly all of the previous research on siblings was obtained through cross-sectional studies, drawing the entirety of data from one point in time. Since it is important to see how the sibling relationship undergoes a metamorphosis as siblings advance through the young and middle adult years into later life, a longitudinal study might be more effective for discovering trends in data.


As previously mentioned, we are very much influenced by the relationships we have with our parents and our siblings in early life. As we grow into adulthood, these complex influences continue to play a role in all our relationships, regardless of whether we are geographically or emotionally close, distant or detached from our family of origin. As siblings age, their relationships are influenced and altered by many actual or perceived events that may or may not be directly related to each other. It is postulated that as siblings grow into adulthood, their focus may move away from each other to their own children, and to their aging parents, which could negatively affect their solidarity and support for each other in later life.

Over time, some sibling issues will obviously remain the same. On the other hand, may social factors emerge that are bound to have an ever-increasing influence on the way siblings deal with their own inevitable aging. The biggest factor, arguably, is the ever-increasing number of older men and women in our society. Current trends and future projections include: 1) a population of aging siblings that is not only growing, but is changing in terms of longevity, health status, and needs, 2) a baby-boom generation that is already arriving at the threshold of retirement. Projections suggest that 25% of the population will be over sixty-five early in the 21st century, 3) an expanding geographical dispersion among family members, 4) a projected increase of programs, legislation that expanding services and institutions to meet the needs of aging siblings. These will offer more options than in the past, which may affect the quality of life for the elderly and their aging siblings, 5) families of aging siblings will have many more opportunities and options in their caregiving and support roles, 6) and finally, the prevalence of divorce and remarriage has produced a proliferation of step relationships, including sisters and brothers. As aging individuals face illness, retirement, a death of a spouse and other enormous changes, their siblings also face questions of how involved they will become in their lives. These events and issues often bring siblings together on new terrain and highlight the strength and stressors of their relationships that have occurred in the most previous periods of their lives. How siblings come together and negotiate this new terrain is affected by many of the latent themes of the early and middle adult eras of their lives: a complex mixture of friendship and collaboration, support and solidarity, and sometimes rivalry around common sibling issues. Therefore, what older adults do for their aging siblings and how they negotiate their own behavior with siblings are salient personal issues for many people. These relationships ultimately concern almost all individuals for whom an aging sibling is, has, or will be part of their life. It ultimately concerns all of us who have siblings and hope to live long, fruitful lives, making it all the more important to investigate, learn and understand the relationship that exists between siblings in not only childhood and old age, but across the whole life span. Therefore to complete the gap in literature, more analysis is necessary on the solidarity and support of young and middle aged adults.


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