According to the latest research from the University of Cambridge sibling rivalry and fighting between siblings increase the social skills, vocabulary and emotional development of younger brothers and sisters. They found that the competitiveness acquired from regular ‘squabbles’ with the elder sibling may make the second child more popular and successful at school, and in later life.
According to Claire Hughes, Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge, what might appear like open warfare was actually teaching children important skills. “The traditional view has been that having a brother or sister leads to a lot of competition for parents' attention and love. In fact, the balance of our evidence suggests that children's social understanding may be accelerated by their interaction with siblings in many cases. When children are arguing, my research makes the case that they are actually benefiting from the confrontation…Parents who are being worn down by constant bickering among children should take comfort in the fact that their children are learning important social skills. Second siblings do better in our tests and children who have a better social understanding go on to be more popular in later in life,” she explained.
Dr Hughes's study, Toddlers Up, took five years to complete and involved the close observation and follow-up of two-year-old children from 140 families. The team carried out a range of tests for five years that included videos of the children interacting with their parents, siblings, friends and strangers. There were also interviews and questionnaires carried out with parents, teachers and the children; and aptitude, language and memory tests. Results showed that siblings mostly have a positive effect on a child's early development, even in cases where the relationship is “less than cordial”. The exchanges between the siblings helped them to build what researchers called “emotional scaffolding” which helped them to recognise and talk about different feelings. Researchers noted that by the time the younger siblings reached the age of 6 their levels of social understanding were almost the same as their older brother or sister.
Dr Hughes said that parents could also learn from their children about conflict resolution. “Children can teach adults a few things about burying the hatchet, as they often resolve disputes quickly in order to get back to playing. Children can be acutely aware of fairness between them and their siblings, which can be hard for parents to manage, but this behaviour just shows how much they care,” she said.
“Of course, if sibling rivalry gets out of hand, it can be very negative. Persistent violence is a strong predictor that the aggressive child will bully their peers. I don't want to be the woman who says it's good if your children hate each other, but parents might take some sort of comfort, when their children are fighting, in the discovery that they are learning valuable social skills and intelligence which they will take outside the home, and apply to other children,” she added.
The study focused on low-income families and teenage parents whose children are often seen at risk of poor emotional development and social skills. Dr Hughes's research is to be published in a book, Social Understanding and Social Lives published on Friday.
Judy Dunn, professor of development psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, said that although “it may not feel like it, sibling rivalry can be constructive, preparing them for important relationships when they are older”. Dr Tina Kretschmer, co-author of Siblings – Friends or Foes? and a fellow at King's College London, said parents should not try to stifle their children's rivalry. “It's a natural part of sibling relationships and it has its good sides: it can motivate them to choose different niches in which to excel,” she said. But Dorothy Rowe, psychologist and author of My Dearest Enemy, My Dangerous Friend: Making and Breaking Sibling Bonds, believes that parents should intervene in disagreements to show siblings that there is a better way to deal with arguments. She advises parents to avoid taking sides and remain calm.