Older & Younger Siblings Help Each Other Develop Empathy In Childhood & Over Time, According To A Study

Siblings younger and older, rejoice! Science says we are respectively good for each other, despite what years of childhood bickering may suggest. According to a new study, both older and younger siblings help each other develop empathy. This is doubly good news for middle children, such as myself, who are basically responsible for how nice both their older and younger siblings are, as per this study. (On behalf of all middle children everywhere, you’re welcome. We’ll take our thanks in the form of appreciative Facebook posts and various baked goods.)

This new study, published in the scientific journal Child Development, examined how siblings affect each other’s empathy over the course of 18 months. Researchers studied 452 pairs of siblings in Canada who represented a diverse group of social and socioeconomic backgrounds. The goal was to see how younger siblings (aged 18 months old) and older siblings (4 years old) influenced each other’s development of empathy. In addition to monitoring siblings by video recording at-home interactions and having parents fill out questionnaires, researchers also conducted a test to see how both children reacted to an adult in distress (i.e. “breaking a cherished object”) and in pain (i.e. hitting their knee).

It may come as little surprise that older children influence the development of their younger siblings. (Anyone with a little brother or sister could tell you that much.) What was surprising was that researchers found this influence to be reciprocal: both siblings contributed to each other’s empathy. “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,” Marc Jambon, one of the study’s lead researchers, said in a press release on Science Daily.

Essentially, older siblings make younger siblings more caring and vice versa.

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Researchers also took into account differences in the gender of the siblings (i.e. older brother/younger sister, older sister/younger sister, etc.). The results remained true regardless of gender except for one scenario: “Younger brothers didn’t contribute to significant changes in older sisters’ empathy,” Jambon said. (Sorry, lil bros of big sisters.)

Age difference also appeared to be a significant factor, with a greater age gap between siblings showing a correlation to how influential an older sibling was. Again, perhaps not a huge surprise to anyone with a significantly younger sibling who you basically helped raise or an older sibling who you idolized.

“Our findings emphasize the importance of considering how all members of the family, not just parents and older siblings, contribute to children’s development,” Sheri Madigan, a coauthor of the study, also said in the press release. Previous studies have found that younger siblings are influential during adolescence, Madigan mentioned, but this recent research suggests that influence may begin even earlier in development.

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Previous research has also found that the relationship specifically between sisters has scientific benefits. One 2010 study suggests that sisters make you nicer and having a sister, either older or younger, has a positive effect on mental well-being. Another study from Brigham Young University found sisters help their siblings curb negative emotions like loneliness, fear, and depression.

The benefits of siblinghood extend beyond our developmental years. According to one 2014 study, having a close relationship with an adult sibling may be the key to a happy life, specifically in its benefits for your mental health. Of course, there are plenty of less scientific benefits to having a sibling, like having someone’s closet to raid or experience to learn from. (Both are of equal value.)

So, siblings young and old have something to celebrate today. (...at least for that brief moment before you go back to bickering.)