Should I bully my brothers?

Childhood: Siblings: About love among rivals

Relationships among sisters and brothers are more natural and spontaneous than any other human bond. Rivalries start in the womb

On December 30, 2006, Yuki Muto had had enough. The 21-year-old Japanese beats his sister Azumi, who is one year younger than him, with a traditional wooden sword. Then he chokes her with a towel. And presses her under water in the bathtub until she drowns. Azumi had teased him. Her brother was about to take college entrance exams that he had failed three times. Azumi had sneered at him.

The story of Elinor Stewart and Bruce Couper also ended in death. The Scottish twins were 70 when they died within a few hours in December 2004 - Bruce after two weeks in a coma, Elinor unexpectedly of old age. Her simultaneous death surprised the family. Also not.

Because the two were close all their lives: they worked in the same company, sang in the same choir as children, and were best men at their weddings.

Rivalries between siblings already occur in the womb

And then there's Donna Toohey from Baltimore. The 45-year-old has hardly spoken to Maureen for a long time. Since her sister discovered a new life partner and religion, the two have little to say to each other. But should Maureen need help, Donna would be there for her. Maureen has “salvation privileges,” says Donna. After all, she was her sister.

"Indians are either on the warpath or smoke the pipe of peace", Kurt Tucholsky once remarked, "Siblings can do both."

Around two thirds of all children in Germany know this from their own experience: They grow up with sisters and brothers. The bond between them usually lasts longer than any other in their life. Parents die, friendships fade, partnerships end in arguments - but siblings remain.

You'll be there when we jump off the one-meter board for the first time. They play catch with us in the garden. They help hide the broken pieces of the vase - and then they tell the mother who broke it.

They are our first companions as babies, our confidants as children, our torturers in the teenage years, when they excite us with a carefully placed allusion to the botched math work. As young adults we often ignore them and our own life is more important. But in old age they often come close to us again. We lean on them when partners die or illnesses weaken us.

Sibling relationships are more natural and spontaneous than any other relationship, according to the Munich psychologist Hartmut Kasten. The love between brothers and sisters can extend to incest, hatred to murder. It is a force field of its own, its own psychodynamics, that prevails between siblings.

But scientists have only been seriously considering the relationship between brothers and sisters for about 20 years. Psychologists, sociologists and geneticists have established that the relationship with our siblings is in many ways just as important for our self-image and our identity as that with our parents - sometimes even more so.

Because siblings are the first social group we have to fit into. In which we learn to deal with the nuances of closeness, rejection, competition, conflict and reconciliation.

“The treasure trove of feelings, thought patterns and action strategies that we develop with siblings becomes the basic pattern for dealing with the world,” writes the Swiss psychologist Jürg Frick.

One-year-olds already have as much interaction and exchange with their siblings as they do with their mothers. Between the ages of three and five, brothers and sisters often spend more than twice as much time together as with their parents.

From a biological point of view, siblings are one thing above all else: rivals. This can be seen in nature. The female of the blue-footed booby incubates a clutch of several eggs. But if it can't get enough food, the strongest chick starts chopping on the smallest after hatching - until it dies.

Piglets are born with special teeth that help them fight for the milk-richest teats. And there is even a squabble among youngsters among plants. The jambul tree, for example, forms up to 30 seed precursors per fruit - botanically speaking, all of them are siblings. When the first is fertilized, it feeds at the expense of the others and secretes a chemical that kills them.

Presumably, a kind of battle for repression also takes place in the human womb. After all, with identical twins, one child is usually born smaller and weaker than the other. Later on, siblings mainly compete for parental affection and care - including limited resources that are not necessarily evenly distributed. Most parents may claim that they treat every child equally. But one thing is certain: you don't do it.

Some firstborn suffer from the "dethronement trauma"

A US researcher recently evaluated daily statistics of 15,000 children and found that between the ages of four and 13, parents spend an average of 3000 hours more “quality” time with their first-born than with any later-born child: they play with him, read together, go to museums, do homework.

If a second, third or fourth child joins them, at some point parents simply don't have the time to pile up building blocks on the living room carpet for hours. Younger siblings are packed into the car when the eldest child is driven to the ballet, they are hastily pushed over a coloring book, and even some visits to the doctor are apparently skipped:

Studies show that the likelihood of being vaccinated decreases by 20 to 30 percent for each new sibling. Conversely, according to a survey from the USA, the younger ones are allowed to watch TV with their parents longer than their older siblings at the same age.

Each offspring is treated differently. Most siblings say their mothers are partial. And many parents admit that they secretly have favorites. But even the fairest fathers and mothers could not raise their children in exactly the same way: They are excited and insecure with the first, increasingly routine with each subsequent child. An illness or the age of the child alone require different actions. And even if parents apply the same rules, they shape every child differently.

Many older siblings feel neglected when their parents take care of the newborn. Although they enjoyed the same care as babies, they now perceive their parents' behavior from a different perspective - and are full of envy.

The fact that siblings often develop so differently should actually be astonishing, because our personality is a result of genes and environmental influences. However, siblings share an average of 50 percent of genes (identical twins are genetically identical). The environmental influences are also very similar: They eat together, they can pass the time with the same toys, they go on the same excursions - their parents funnel them into the same principles.

And yet every child lives in their own world. Researchers found that siblings are no more alike than children raised in different families. Studies even show that identical twins are far more alike in nature, way of life and preferences if they grew up separately.

Because in the family they compete with each other, compete for the love of their parents and set themselves apart from one another. Everyone is looking for their own personal niche that nobody disputes with them. Often parents intensify such rivalries: compare their children with one another. Realize that one is more athletic than the other. Punish one child more often than the other. In this way, siblings feel even more favored or disadvantaged.

Some researchers assume that one factor particularly shapes the child's perspective: the place in the birth order. The US psychologist Frank J. Sulloway even speaks of an "evolutionary arms race" for the parents' favor. His thesis after 26 years of research, in which he evaluated the biographies of 6,566 historical personalities, including those of Newton, Darwin and Galilei: Depending on the sibling constellation, a child develops strategies that determine his personality for the rest of life.

So - according to Sulloway - firstborns seem to enjoy an almost unassailable lead. In many cultures, particularly impressive birth ceremonies are dedicated to them. They often have a parent's first name or are heirs to the family business. In addition, they exercise the right of the fittest for a long time. However, they are often given responsibility for fellow siblings at an early stage. And if there is a dispute, it is not uncommon for them to be held accountable first.

All of this leads to the fact that the oldest siblings are usually more conscientious, more conformist and more ambitious. In addition, firstborns felt attached to the status quo (which eventually favors them) and were quick to react jealously - presumably because they knew exactly what it felt like to be “dethroned” and lose the monopoly on parental love.

Psychoanalysts even speak of the “dethronement trauma” of the firstborn, which sometimes continues into adulthood. Not only the relationship with the younger sibling, but also the relationship with the mother can be strained as a result: It is characterized by an ambivalence that is expressed through affection on the one hand and distrust on the other.

Those born later often compensate for a lack of strength with jokes

If the mother asks the older child in this situation to show love for the younger sibling, this can lead to deep emotional conflicts: If the “dethroned” child admits not to love the sibling, it must fear that its mother will still be continues to turn away from him.

The later born are not affected by this dethronement trauma, but they too have to fight their way through. According to a result of Sulloway's CV research, they often compensate for a lack of strength through jokes, are more sensitive and more open to adventure and new things.

Among other things, Sulloway found among the early followers of teachings that turned the worldview upside down - such as Darwin's theory of evolution - five times more later-born than first-born. Around three quarters of the people who flocked to Martin Luther's Reformation movement were also born later, according to his study. And they provided some of the greatest rebels and innovators, including Karl Marx and Charles Darwin.

In contrast, there was a disproportionately large number of heads of state and government among the firstborn. Other studies show that firstborn babies are better educated these days (they go to school one year longer on average); that they earn more, win more Nobel Prizes and have a lot of company bosses.

When researchers looked through the records of around 250,000 Norwegian conscripts, they found that the oldest sons in a family scored an average of 2.3 points more on the intelligence test than those born later. It made no difference whether a boy was born first or had moved into this position through death - an indication of the family dynamics as the cause.

But many scientists view Sulloway's theses with skepticism, because several of his studies compare firstborns from one clan with second and third borns from others. They do not differentiate between families, but treat everyone equally. But because families are different and live in diverse social conditions, this only allows reliable statements to be made to a limited extent. And even Sulloway admits that factors such as the age gap or the relationship to the parents can undermine the effect of the ranking.

In addition, many of the people on whose résumés his theses are based grew up at a time when children, depending on their birth position, were much more likely to be confronted with very specific expectations than they are today. Society categorized them socially and economically: the position of heir to the court or heir to the throne was mostly filled with firstborn children, younger daughters were sent to monasteries, younger sons were deported to the colonies or the military. All of this had an impact on what traits people developed.

Twelve year old girls want to be like their older sister

In times of individual self-fulfillment, however, the expectations of the individual are usually no longer linked to their birth position. "In the light of tough social science research, not much remains of the differences between the positions," says Hartmut Kasten. Whether you feel spurred on by a talented sister, for example, or whether she is causing you to suffer from an inferiority complex, ultimately depends not only on whether she is older, but also on inherited traits.

Despite all differences of opinion, researchers agree that children look for their niche in the family. “As individuals, they want to find a place and a bond with their parents. This is achieved, for example, by differentiating themselves from their siblings, ”explains the psychologist Jürg Frick.

This development often leads to zigzag constellations: If the eldest brother is quick-tempered, the next younger sister is left emphasized, the baby boy then shows temperament again. Particularly fierce arguments and rivalries occur when the age difference between siblings is less than four years. If there are more than six, it is easier for one child to enjoy the other's triumphs.

Getting involved in the sibling's otherness also creates closeness and familiarity: Again and again you rub yourself against the other, then approach them and get along again. A sign of this is the attachment, which can often be observed in younger siblings at eight months. They laugh when the older sibling comes and are happy to play with them. Later, in unfamiliar situations, they are more fearless and more open-minded around him.

Developmental psychologists assume that such mutual identification plays an important role in the development of identity and personality. If the younger one admires his older brother, he may emulate him in order to occupy a similar position. But he will probably choose another sport. Or not trying out your skills on the same model ship.

If siblings identify too much with one another, they often emulate each other when it comes to risky behavior. Studies show that children are more likely to reach for cigarettes, alcohol or cannabis and have sex earlier if bigger siblings show them how. This is more important than the example of the parents, according to the US psychologist Matt McGue after a study of more than 600 families: "A twelve-year-old does not want to be like her mother - she looks at what her 15-year-old sister is doing."

The roles that have been tried and tested in the family are often retained in this group into old age. So it happens that the daughter is the prudent one at every Christmas meeting and her brother the family clown - even if both behave differently. Because outside of the parental home, people usually redefine themselves. Because they quickly learn that colleagues, for example, don't appreciate being ordered around like the little sister.

Siblings are particularly sensitive to questions of fairness

Nevertheless, the traces of the sibling dynamics remain visible. What we look for or reject in a partner, for example, also depends on what our childhood companions exemplified and what relationship we had with them. Researchers differentiate between different identification patterns between siblings. They range from “hero worship” to distant or even denied relationships.

This is also reflected in the choice of profession. “Then you don't decide on the same job as your brother, for example, because he has always been technically gifted. Or, conversely, you choose the career of your admired sister, ”says Frick.

The question of whether they grew up with siblings of the same sex or of the opposite sex also has a major influence on a person's personality and character. Particularly feminine, i.e. emotional, sensitive girls usually develop from purely female siblings - and especially masculine boys, tough, assertive and intelligent, from male siblings.

Even if quarreling is normal in the nursery and rivalry can be a healthy development engine - some teasing haunts us for a lifetime. If we always feel low valued in the company, it may be because an unprocessed sibling relationship distorts our perception.And if one child systematically suppresses the other (e.g. physically, emotionally or sexually), this can trigger depression, self-doubt and relationship disorders decades later.