Studying sibling empathy
A child who demonstrates strong empathy skills is able to show feelings of care and concern for others in need.
Learning to be empathic early in development can set in motion lifelong strengths in treating others with kindness, respect and understanding. Empathic children become empathic friends, spouses and parents.
In the research context, we study empathy by observing how young children respond to an adult who pretends to be upset when they broke a cherished object, hit their knee or caught their finger in a briefcase.
We are interested in how empathy skills grow over time and whether one sibling’s empathy influences the other sibling’s growth in empathy.
What’s important in this newly published research is that we were able to remove the influence of parents so we can attribute growth in a child’s empathy skills directly to their sibling (and not their parents).
Younger siblings have influence too
We commonly think of older siblings as having a greater impact on their younger siblings than vice-versa: Older brothers and sisters are more experienced and knowledgeable.
However, we’ve found in our research that both younger and older siblings uniquely contribute to each others’ empathy development.
Older siblings can be role models to the younger siblings, and vice versa —younger siblings with strong empathy skills can be role models to their older siblings.
As long as one sibling is empathic, the other one benefits.
What about age differences? Does it matter if one sibling is much older than the other?
All siblings in our study were within a maximum of four years of one another in age. But we did find that in families where siblings were further apart in age, older brothers and sisters had a stronger influence on their younger siblings.
So, the bigger the age gap, the better older siblings are at modeling empathic behaviours.
We also found that younger brothers did not significantly influence their older sisters.
It’s not just parents who influence how well children develop. Siblings do too. And sibling relationships are not just about rivalry, animosity, jealousy and competition for parental attention.
Child development is a family affair.