Why do older sisters hate younger sisters

Siblings: They love and they hate each other

They're sick to the bone, they look after each other lovingly, they know each other's weak point. Once they are inseparable, then again they are spider enemies: siblings. Brothers and sisters are something of a community of fate. A life long.

"The sibling relationship is usually the longest lasting relationship in our life," says Martina Beham-Rabanser, family sociologist at the University of Linz. Siblings have a special status in the network of caregivers: "We do not choose them voluntarily. And the relationship is practically permanent."

Especially in childhood, siblings - right after the parents - play an immensely important role. "Three to five-year-old children already interact twice as much with siblings as they do with their mother," says Stephan Sting, educational scientist at the University of Klagenfurt.

Researchers speak of a U-curve in the sibling relationship: A strong bond in childhood and adolescence is often followed by a phase of detachment in the years of starting a career and starting a family. The bonds usually deepen again with increasing age. "Even if the relationship is very conflictual and the contact breaks off completely at times, the relationship can always be reactivated," says Sting.

Formative interlocutor

How much siblings shape our identity can be seen from the current Social Survey Austria. For the first time in the representative survey, the question was asked with whom the respondents at the age of around 15 discussed important topics and how much these people had influenced their own values ​​and attitudes. It showed that siblings were the most important interlocutors after their parents and their best friend.

When asked who shaped their own values ​​"very strongly", the parents were also in first place with around 43 percent approval, followed by the best friend (22.5 percent) and almost equally with the siblings (19 , 5 percent). Only then did the circle of friends, grandparents, teachers and others follow. "This differentiated analysis has shown that siblings of adolescents belong to the family and the social reference system of their friends at the same time," says Martina Beham-Rabanser, co-author of the study.

Ambivalent and charged

This significant influence of siblings on how we see the world does not mean, however, that brothers and sisters always have the same basic attitude, emphasizes Beham-Rabanser. "It is precisely in arguments, in-depth discussions and in setting yourself apart from others that you only become aware of your own positions and values."

One thing is certain: there is no lack of friction surfaces in sibling relationships. Ambivalence, that is, the oscillation between friendship and enmity, between solidarity and competition, is the order of the day. In contrast to many friendships, the sibling relationship is extremely emotionally charged. "This means that communication is more open, including when it comes to negative criticism," says Beham-Rabanser. "After all, you don't have to worry about siblings that you will lose them."

It is undisputed that siblings are an ideal training ground for acquiring social skills. Children learn to argue, to reconcile, to assert themselves and to give in, to show solidarity, to make rules and to make compromises.

Sandwich children and babies

As important as these family members are, sibling research has long been underexposed in psychology, education, and sociology. The Austrian doctor and psychotherapist Alfred Adler (1870–1937), the founder of individual psychology, pointed out the influence of siblings on personality development as early as the 1920s.

Born the second of seven children, Adler shaped the idea that the sibling position is reflected in certain character traits. The first-born gets a lot of attention, but suffers from a "dethronement trauma" as soon as a second child arrives. "Sandwich children" have the fewest advantages. Only the "baby boy" should feel safe and become particularly stable and social.

In the 1990s, the US psychologist Frank Sulloway developed the "niche theory" based on Adler's ideas, according to which firstborns are more dominant and conservative, whereas younger siblings first have to look for their niche and are therefore more open to experimentation, more open and more rebellious.

Fairness and care

But are these ascriptions still tenable? "We now know that they generally do not apply," says Stephan Sting. A complex network of factors - in particular the specific living environment and the way parents deal with the children - are more decisive than the mere ranking. How children develop and how well they get along with each other depends heavily on how fairness is lived in the family, how parents deal with conflicts and promote individuality, experts agree. The fact that firstborns have better grades and more often choose courses that lead to better-paying jobs, as studies suggest, is due to parents devoting more time and care to them.

In order to question the influence of the position on the personality, psychologists from the universities of Leipzig and Mainz examined more than 20,000 data sets. It was found that firstborn babies are slightly more likely to have a higher IQ. However, the effect is minimal: the IQ per child decreases by just 1.5 points. For all other personality traits, no indications of the importance of the birth ranking were found. The difference in IQ is explained with the tutor effect. "The older ones benefit from teaching the younger ones something," says Stephan Sting. "This consolidates knowledge and strengthens cognitive abilities."

Role models, pioneers, support

Older people also often have a role model and pioneer role. "For example, if the oldest child in the family is the first to graduate, it opens up completely new opportunities for the younger ones," says Sting, who researched the educational pathways of young migrants. Siblings can be an irreplaceable support, especially when they split up and in critical family situations. Investigations that Sting carried out in SOS Children's Villages showed that in some cases biological siblings were "the only constant factor in the relationship".

Beham-Rabanser puts the fact that children with siblings have an advantage over only children. "The positive effects, for example on social skills, are most evident when the age gap is small and the siblings are of the same sex," says the family sociologist. Over time, the differences become smaller and smaller - other social relationships compensate for growing up without siblings.

By the way: According to "Psychologie heute", people with sisters are more optimistic and more balanced than those with brothers. Sisters encourage sharing of feelings. And they are - according to traditional role models - those who mostly hold family ties together. (Karin Krichmayr, December 9, 2019)

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