On Sibling Phenomena

The New York Times Well blog posted an article today about the long-term impact on individual mental health from chronic sibling hostility and/or abuse. The sibling relationship is a complex and woefully under-researched one, and so it is encouraging to see it receive mainstream attention. But our focus should not rest solely on the vicissitudes of siblinghood, but also the unique protective and prosocial benefits siblings may offer one another. Most importantly, that helpful and harmful aspects inevitably coexist within the same relationship.

As a Master’s student, most of my research was devoted to siblings. It was precisely the ambiguities of the sibling bond — so often marked by seemingly incongruous combinations of warmth, competitiveness, and hostility — that drew my interest. As Dunn and Kendrick importantly observed in their 1982 observational work, siblings shift in and out of various roles with each other, acting alternately “as comforters and teachers, as devious and manipulative bullies, or as sensitive companions who can enter the play world of the other.” In a forthcoming book chapter, I emphasize the sibling’s important role in expanding the internal world of the individual child:

The child learns who he is—and who he is not—through ongoing comparison with the sibling, selectively imitating, contradicting, or avoiding the other as circumstances demand. At the same time, caregiver response to the negotiation of this relationship determines in large part the sense of warmth, safety, and connection between siblings. Ideally, the sibling comes to represent a “potential self” that the child can reflect on in relation to himself and future relationships. The sibling is a unique figure in the child’s early life—not really [a caregiver], not exactly an enemy or a friend, the sibling is similar but different, and by this unique status can be an ally of distinct psychic reality but shared real-life experience. In many circumstances, however, an alliance fails to develop, and the sibling instead comes to represent a fierce competitor, merciless tyrant, or alien entity that leaves little room for reflection or relatedness. (Kriss, Steele, & Steele, in press)

So while I am glad to see the Times show an interest in contemporary sibling research, our general thinking about siblings should not simply shift from “nothing to worry about” to “something to worry about.” Siblings are an important social phenomenon precisely because they cannot be pigeonholed as good or bad, helpful or harmful, and indeed this may be why they remain so poorly understood. Since the story of Cain and Abel, siblings have been cast in shadow within the landscape of human culture. While mothers and fathers may be ascribed clear roles as a given society demands, sibling relationships are eternally strange, ambivalent, and idiosyncratic. There is something aversive, even scary, about siblings. The question is: Can we overcome our fears and carry the full, messy range of life with siblings into the light of day?

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