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Children's Understanding of their Sibling Relationships

August 2002 - July 2004

Children's relationships with their brothers and sisters are an important part of their everyday lives. Most research on siblings examines predetermined topics, rather than starting from children's own perspectives. This study, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and involving 58 children aged seven to 13, listened to their accounts of everyday life with their brothers and sisters, showing them to be insightful commentators. The research team found that:

  • Children often said that having brothers and sisters meant there was always 'someone there' for them, and gave an emotional sense of protection from being alone. Children loved and cared for each other, but also recognised that everyday disputes occurred. Some children, however, intensely disliked their siblings.
  • Some children said that their brothers and sisters gave them a strong sense of identity as being part of a group, and saw sharing possessions and bedrooms as unremarkable. Others regarded themselves as individuals who were also siblings. They had a strong sense of independence and found it difficult to share possessions or bedrooms with their siblings.
  • Talking together was important to girls in their relationships with their sisters, while for boys doing things together mattered in their relationships with their brothers. In brother-sister relationships, activities took precedence over talking. Children often talked about older brothers and sisters taking care of and protecting younger siblings, as well as having power over them, and about younger siblings as receivers of this attention and authority. Some younger siblings, however, looked after their older brothers or sisters, or saw them as immature.
  • Children had a sense of change over time in themselves and their siblings as they grew older. They continually faced change in their everyday relationships with their brothers and sisters, not just in problematic family circumstances.
  • The researchers conclude that sibling relationships are complex and diverse, and that children are active in shaping these relationships. This has implications for a range of fields of professional practice, such as parenting skills, family therapy and bullying initiatives.

Further details can be obtained from www.jrf.org.uk/knowledge/findings/socialpolicy/0245.asp.

Learn more about the research programme: Intimate Relationships, Psychosocial