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Siblings Help Each Other Develop Empathy

S u m m a r y :
Both older and younger siblings help each other develop empathy, says a new study published in the journal Child Development.

Are Younger Siblings Role Models For Older Siblings?

Having siblings has both its perks and downsides. With healthy relationships, the positive effects are magnified, as have indicated previous studies: for instance, elder siblings who are kind and warm pave the way for younger ones to also adopt this attitude. Older siblings are their role models, and this is seen in how empathy practised by the former can be reflected by the latter; on the other hand, kids whose older siblings lack these characteristics tend to be less empathetic than others. But, is it also true the other around: do younger siblings also affect their older ones in this manner? This is what the new research was aimed at investigating; it was conducted by a team from the University of Calgary, Universite Laval, Tel Aviv University, and the University of Toronto.

“Our findings emphasize the importance of considering how all members of the family, not just parents and older siblings, contribute to children’s development,” suggests co-author Sheri Madigan. “The influence of younger siblings has been found during adolescence, but our study indicates that this process may begin much earlier than previously thought.”

Measuring Empathy in Siblings

The investigators analysed data from 454 Canadian sibling pairs together with their mothers. It is to be noted that the participants, hailing from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, constitute an ethnically diverse group. The team wanted to understand whether the empathy in the participants (of age group 18 to 48 months) at the beginning of the study predicted changes in the empathy of the other sibling 18 months later. Interactions in their family homes were videotaped, and additionally the mothers responded to a questionnaire. The children were also exposed to an adult researcher who pretended to be distressed and hurt; their behaviour and facial expressions were, then, observed to measure their empathy level.

The findings show that both younger and older siblings affect each other’s ability to empathise.

“Although it’s assumed that older siblings and parents are the primary socializing influences on younger siblings’ development (but not vice versa), we found that both younger and older siblings positively contributed to each other’s empathy over time,” explains lead author Marc Jambon. “These findings stayed the same, even after taking into consideration each child’s earlier levels of empathy and factors that siblings in a family share—such as parenting practices or the family’s socioeconomic status—that could explain similarities between them.”

Younger Brothers Are Useless to Older Sisters!

Another aspect of the study involved age and gender differences: the researchers wanted to know whether these affected the development of empathy among siblings. For instance, if the older sibling is a girl, and the younger one, a boy, will the effect be different from another pair where the older is a boy and the younger a girl?

“The effects stayed the same for all children in the study with one exception: Younger brothers didn’t contribute to significant changes in older sisters’ empathy,” explains Jambon.

Greater Age Difference, Better Role Models

An additional finding is that older brothers and sisters have a stronger influence in families where the age difference between siblings is greater. The authors suggest that the former are more effective teachers and role models in these cases.


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