Sibling Relationships in the Family System

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Siblings and the other members of the family are part of a system in which one person's behavior affects everyone else. Likewise, relationships between some family members can influence relationships between other members. For example, the relationship be tween a mother and father can affect the children's relationships with one another. Psychologists who study children's responses to conflict between their parents have found that the parents' anger at one another causes negative emotional reactions in the children, who often direct these reactions toward others. The result is often sibling relationships in which children exchange little positive behavior and much negative behavior. This, however, is not always the case. Some older siblings respond to their parents' fights by becoming more caring and kind toward their younger brothers and sisters, to protect them from the distress arising from the adults' conflict. Parents' individual problems can also affect sibling relationships by influencing individual children's emotional states. The unpleasant feelings that arise from dealing with a depressed or hostile parent may make it more difficult for children to behave pleasantly toward their brothers and sisters.

Psychologists have found that conflict between parents and parents' personal problems influence sibling relationships through parent-child relationships. If parents' problems lead them to behave in a hostile manner toward their children, sibling relationships will be disrupted. If parents do not become hostile, however, marital problems and parental depression are far less likely to affect sibling relationship quality. The same is true for parents' relationships with impatient children. Parents who are able to form positive relationships with such children, even though the children's temperaments make it difficult to deal with them, may be able to smooth out the problems these children experience in their sibling relationships. Children with difficult temperaments who experience positive relationships with their parents will learn how to treat others positively, including their siblings.

When parents' relationships with their children are not equally positive, though, sibling relationships can be affected negatively. Ever since Sigmund Freud formulated his theories about sibling rivalry, psychologists have found that discrepancies in parents' treatment of their children create negative feelings between siblings. This is particularly likely to happen when parents direct unequal amounts of intrusive-ness, responsiveness, positive emotions, and negative emotions toward their children, and when they discipline one child more than another for the same behavior. Sensitive parenting, however, often requires that children in the same family be treated differently. Children of different ages have different needs related to their stages of development, and children with different temperaments need their parents to respond to them in ways that best suit the children's personalities. Treating siblings differently is most likely to affect their relationships negatively when the children interpret their parents' behavior as a sign that their parents are less concerned about them, or that they are less worthy of love, than their brothers and sisters. Children are less likely to draw such conclusions when parents give each child the attention and nurturing that he or she needs.

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