Sibling Relationships

Sibling Relationships

By Erica Aten, M.A., Pre-Doctoral Clinical Psychology Intern, Psychological Services

Although parents are typically a child's first source of human connection, sibling relationships are also an important factor in development.  As of 2010, 82.22% of youth lived with at least one sibling(1).  Sibling bonds are unique in that they often last a lifetime and are typically people’s longest relationships in life(2). Sibling relationships are influential in many ways.

Positive Influences

Supportive sibling relationships are associated with:

  • Academic success(3)
  • Effective problem solving skills(4)
  • Increased ability to cope with parental discord and lack of parental support(5)
  • Perspective taking, negotiation, and conflict resolution
  • Understanding emotions
  • Empathy
  • Pro-social behavior(6)
  • Greater social competence and acceptance by peers
  • Greater ability to develop and maintain intimate relationships as adults(7)
  • Fewer depressive symptoms
  • Higher self-esteem(5)

Sibling Relationships Over Time

Siblings often navigate developmental stages together(9). There are four stages siblings go through that coincide with the family life-cycle.

Phase One: The first phase occurs during childhood. During this phase, companionship and emotional support are the primary needs siblings fulfill for each other. Siblings are in need of each other’s support during childhood because they are discovering their worlds; and because they have similar experiences, they serve as ideal companions for each other.

Phase Two: During adolescence, youth are confronted with the tasks of individualizing and separating from their families. Sibling relationships are especially important through those developmental years because siblings are a support system for adolescents who are nearing adulthood and independence.

Phase Three: Adulthood is a stage of life where many new experiences occur, including relationships and the birth of children; however, it is also a time when people experience losses due to the death of older family members. During adulthood, sibling relationships take on a companionship role. Emotional support becomes a central need that is fulfilled by sibling relationships; however, sibling bonds may not be as strong as they previously were because adults typically have spouses to lean on for immediate support.

Phase Four: Sibling relationships become essential again when siblings’ parents become ill. From approximately middle adulthood to the end of life, siblings usually become close and supportive, similar to the way they were during childhood. Sibling relationships serve as a way for adults to compensate for other losses, including their parents, spouses and friends. During this time, siblings become nostalgic, discussing memories and often ameliorating sibling rivalry that occurred when they were younger. Sibling relationships continue to be supportive and intimate until one of the siblings passes away.

Siblings with a Chronic Illness, Disability or Emotional/Behavioral Difficulties

Although children’s families play a role in interfamilial relationships, children themselves also influence their relationships with siblings. Even though families can create stressful circumstances for their children, children’s individual characteristics can exacerbate the level of distress in a family and lead to tension in sibling relationships(10). For example, children who have difficult temperaments tend to have higher rates of relational difficulties, particularly with siblings. Other individual characteristics like chronic illness, disabilities, and emotional/behavioral concerns also influence difficulties and rewards for typically-developing siblings.

Difficulties include: internalizing feelings (depression and anxiety), difficulty adjusting, low self-concept, school problems (attendance, truancy), psychosocial difficulties, post-traumatic stress, behavior problems (aggression), emotional instability, maladaptive coping, loneliness, embarrassment, greater likelihood of being bullied.

Rewards include: greater resiliency, compassion, empathy, pro-social behavior, greater acceptance of “Others,” social competence, kindness, nurturing, positive and stable friendships.

Effect on the family system: family’s resources are extended (money, time, physical and emotional presence), multi-tasking is a necessity, higher stress level, less attention for the typically-developing child, societal judgments, greater capacity for empathy, more understanding and compassion for people with disabilities.


Sibshops is a workshop-style program developed for siblings of children with special needs, developmental and mental health concerns. According to the foreword in the Sibshops manual, “the literature has portrayed brothers and sisters of people with disabilities as everything from emotional misfits to healthy, happy, well-adjusted individuals.” Don Meyer, the developer of Sibshops, recognized the unique concerns and strengths of these siblings and created a program to support them. The focus of Sibshops is to provide a supportive environment for siblings to receive education and develop peer relationships with other siblings with similar experiences.

Sibshops at JCFS Chicago are currently offered one Sunday afternoon each month at the Elaine Kersten Children's Center in Northbrook. They are open to siblings of children with all developmental disabilities.

For more information on Northbrook Sibshops, contact Tammy Besser, LCSW or 773.765.3159.

If you or someone you know is looking for additional support, and could benefit from counseling services or other programs and services for people with disabilities, contact JCFS Chicago at 855.275.5237 or visit


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2. Feinberg, M. E., Solmeyer, A. R., & McHale, S. M. (2012). The third rail of family systems: Sibling relationships, mental and behavioral health, and preventive intervention in childhood and adolescence. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 15(1), 43-57. 

3. Bouchey, H. A., Shoulberg, E. K., Jodl, K. M., & Eccles, J. S. (2010). Longitudinal links between older sibling features and younger siblings’ academic adjustment during early adolescence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 197-211.

4. Howe, G. W. (1993). Siblings of children with physical disabilities and chronic illnesses: Studies of risk and social ecology. In Research on Siblings of Individuals with Mental Retardation, Physical Disabilities, and Chronic Illness, Apr, 1991. Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

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6. Updegraff, K. A., McHale, S. M., & Crouter, A. C. (2002). Adolescents’ sibling relationships and friendships: Developmental patterns and relationship associations. Social Development, 11, 182-211.

7. Bank, L., Burraston, B., & Snyder, J. (2004). Sibling conflict and ineffective parenting as predictors of adolescent boys’ antisocial behavior and peer difficulties: Additive and interactional effects. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 14, 99-125.

8. Kim, J., McHale, S., Crouter, A., & Osgood, D. (2007). Longitudinal linkages between sibling relationships and adjustment from middle childhood through adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 43(4), 960–973.

9. Goetting, A. (1986). The developmental tasks of siblingship over the life cycle. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 703-714.

10. Stoneman, Z. (2001). Supporting positive sibling relationships during childhood. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 7, 134-142.