What is the definition of older brother

The importance of siblings for the social and cognitive development of children and adolescents - theories and research findings

Children and adolescents grow up in a network of social relationships that can fulfill very different functions for social, emotional and cognitive development. Sibling relationships are an important part of this social network. Sibling relationships represent the longest relationships in a person's life, and in the case of younger siblings, they are from birth. Only about every fifth child in the Federal Republic of Germany grows up without any siblings (Federal Ministry for Family, Seniors, Women and Youth, 2002, p. 124).

Symmetry / asymmetry in social relationships

Symmetrical relationships are characterized by a balance of power and skills or competencies of the relationship partners. Asymmetry exists when there is a power or competence imbalance. The parent-child relationship is characterized by a strong asymmetry, whereas peer, friendship and ideally partnership relationships are less asymmetrical. Sibling relationships can be located between these two poles. They are less asymmetrical than general child-adult relationships, but more asymmetrical than peer-to-peer relationships.

In sibling relationships, both symmetrical and asymmetrical aspects come into play. The symmetrical aspects consist in the trusting interaction of the children with one another, in cooperative play and in coping with problems together. Structurally, children form a unit vis-à-vis their parents, which is characterized by role symmetry and is expressed, for example, in sibling solidarity (von Salisch, 1993). The asymmetrical aspects are primarily related to the sibling position (older or younger sibling) as well as to the age differences and the associated developmental differences between the older and younger siblings.

The asymmetry of sibling relationships decreases in the course of development from early childhood to early adulthood (Buhrmester, 1992). The reason for this is the developmental differences between older and younger siblings, which over time have become less and less important, while the age difference remains the same.

Studies in which the interactions of preschool and school children in the laboratory or in the natural environment at home were observed show that asymmetrical role behavior occurs much more frequently among siblings than among friends of the same age. Older siblings not only serve as playmates, they also often show determining, teaching and helping behaviors. The younger siblings by no means only subordinate themselves to such behavior, but also demand it. According to the gender role stereotypes, it is more often older sisters who take on teaching, caring and helping roles. In comparison, older brothers are more competitive with their younger siblings (Brody & Stoneman, 1995).

The importance of symmetrical / asymmetrical interactions for learning and development

Development theorists such as Piaget, Sullivan and Youniss (e.g. Youniss, 1994) argue that symmetrical relationships provide special impulses for the social and cognitive development of children and adolescents. In symmetrical relationships, especially peer relationships, there should be a higher probability that two interaction partners will work out the solution to a problem together (co-constructively). The process of co-construction challenges social skills and cognitive self-performance that are not equally effective in asymmetrical relationships. In asymmetrical relationships, such as the parent-child relationship, the mutual interaction is more strongly regulated by the more competent interaction partner. The less competent interaction partner tends to subordinate themselves to appropriate behavioral guidelines and to adopt knowledge and views unquestioned.

Theorists who follow the Vygotsky tradition, on the other hand, assume that development impulses come from interactions with superior interaction partners (e.g. Rogoff, 1990). Superior interaction partners are better able than equally competent ones to structure the mutual interactions and to transfer knowledge and skills to the less competent interaction partner. The concept of the zone of next evolution plays an important role in Vygotsky's approach. This defines the difference between the level of development that a child can express actively and independently and the skills and competencies that are shown in joint interactions with a more competent interaction partner. According to Vygotsky's theory, new skills and new knowledge to be learned are first activated on the social level of mutual interaction before they are internalized by the learning individual.

Consequences for learning processes in sibling relationships

An overview of studies on cooperative learning (Azmitia & Perlmutter, 1989) showed that it is usually more advantageous for a less competent interaction partner to cooperate with a more competent interaction partner than with an equally competent one. However, the interaction with a more competent interaction partner only leads to better success if this partner actually takes over the control of the cooperative process. Under certain circumstances, however, an equally competent interaction partner can generate positive development impulses, namely if the interaction leads to a cognitive conflict among those involved and they can resolve it independently.

If the results of the studies on cooperative learning are related to sibling relationships, one would expect that positive impulses would primarily come from the more competent older siblings. The sibling relationship would therefore represent a learning context especially for the younger siblings, namely a learning context that should be all the more beneficial, the greater the age gap and thus the developmental advantage of the older siblings compared to the younger ones. In addition, the willingness of the older siblings to take on teaching, helping and caring roles in the mutual interactions is likely to play a role. In addition, it cannot be ruled out that the younger siblings could also have lower but also positive effects on the social and cognitive development of the older siblings.

Research findings on sibling interactions

In experimental studies with siblings (McGillicuddy-de Lisi, 1993) it could be shown that the level of cooperation with an older sibling is higher than the level achieved by a younger sibling alone and also higher than the level achieved by an older sibling achieved together with a younger sibling. The result was interpreted as evidence that older siblings are able to activate the zone of next development of younger siblings. Older siblings could therefore be effective tutors for younger siblings.

In studies of the influence of the sibling constellation and sibling cooperation on the success in solving cognitive tasks (Cicirelli, 1975; 1976), children working alone with older brothers had better solution strategies than children working alone with older sisters. For children who worked together with their siblings, only the help of older sisters proved to be beneficial. Older sisters appeared to be effective tutors for younger siblings. Older brothers, on the other hand, apparently had a stimulating effect on the cognitive development of their younger siblings solely through their competitive behavior. This interpretation was supported by the fact that older sisters in the cooperation situation gave more explanations and feedback to younger siblings than older brothers, and the younger siblings were more likely to accept the help of the older sisters than that of the older brothers.

The instructions given by older siblings with a greater age gap (4 years compared to 2 years) proved to be particularly effective, and here again especially those given by the older sisters (Cicirelli, 1975; 1976). A comparison with mothers showed that mothers in the cooperation situation gave more explanations and more frequent feedback to younger siblings than older siblings. Conversely, the younger siblings showed more help-seeking and accepting behavior towards the mothers than towards the older siblings. However, the behavior of the mothers turned out to be dependent on the gender of the older sibling. Mothers were more likely to provide feedback to the younger sibling when the older sibling was male than when it was female (Cicirelli, 1975; 1976).

This finding was interpreted to mean that mothers apparently transfer part of their caring and helping function to them when they have an older daughter. The daughter learns to perform this function competently. Overall, the behaviors associated with the respective roles seemed to have been internalized in such a way that they also appeared in the cooperation situations independently of the presence of the mother or older sibling.

Similar gender-specific patterns were found in an Icelandic study (Schmid & Keller, 1998). Children with an older sister with a large age gap (at least 3 years) had both higher levels of cognitive and higher socio-cognitive development compared to children with an older sibling with a smaller age gap (less than 3 years). Children with an older brother with a large age gap, only children and oldest children were between the two groups mentioned.

In a study on the development of the understanding of the feelings and actions of others (Ruffman et al., 1998), which was carried out with children of kindergarten age, both children with one older sibling and even more children with several older siblings were found to be more developed than Children without older siblings. In contrast, there was no development-promoting effect from younger siblings.

The importance of teaching behavior for cognitive development

Against the background of the findings reported above, it seems reasonable to assume that younger siblings might benefit from having an older sibling who teaches them something and from whom they can learn something. Contrary to this assumption, however, there are increasing indications that it is rather the older siblings who have a development advantage. Older siblings seem to benefit from having a younger sibling whom they can teach something (Schmid, submitted; Schmid & Wintersteller, submitted).

Studies based on large data sets (e.g. school performance studies) regularly show that firstborns from two-child families have higher competencies than first-borns from three-child families, and that these in turn have higher values ​​than first-borns from four-child families. In addition, there is a decrease in the competence values ​​between the first and second born in all family sizes. The higher the test age of the children, the more pronounced this drop is. With increasing family size, the competence values ​​of those born later in the sibling series can then increase again; such an increase can be observed above all with a lower test age. After all, the competence values ​​of only children, who have all the parents' resources to themselves, are not, as might be expected against this background, above the first-born from two-child families, but below the first-born from three or four-child families; the exact position also depends on the age of the test.

As early as the 1970s, a model was developed that can explain these sibling position effects - the so-called “confluence model” (Zajonc & Markus, 1975; Zajonc, 1976; Zajonc et al., 1991; Zajonc & Mullally, 1997; Sulloway, 2007) . The model is based on the assumption that a child's intellectual abilities develop in relation to the intellectual level of the entire family. The overall intellectual level of a family is made up of the individual levels of all family members and thus varies with the number of children (the more children, the lower the level) and with their age differences (large age differences have a positive effect). In the case of average age differences, the overall intellectual level for children decreases with the number of siblings and increases again with the rank at birth (the latter can be shown using mathematical simulations) as the context of development.

When reviewing the model, two irregularities emerged that could not be reconciled with the assumptions described: Only children and the youngest children had lower levels of competence than expected. These irregularities, together with the changes in the pattern with increasing test age, can be explained by the so-called “teaching effect”. According to the “teaching effect”, teaching behaviors are an effective means of promoting the development of one's own competencies. Only children and the youngest children do not have the opportunity to practice such behavior towards younger siblings in everyday life, which puts them at a developmental disadvantage. Conversely, firstborns in particular seem to benefit from such behaviors.

Closeness / distance in social relationships

Social relationships not only form contexts of development, but also serve as a resource that can be used when there is a need for information and personal problems (Hartup, 1985). In a study that included children and adolescents between the ages of 12 and 16, around 10 percent of respondents said that they were most likely to turn to a sibling if they had problems or difficulties with themselves or with others (Fend, 1998) . Siblings often spend more time together in early childhood than with their parents or with peers (Dunn, 1983). This creates a close bond and great familiarity. From school age onwards, more and more time is spent with people of the same age. At the beginning of elementary school, children rate the closeness to their parents as higher than that to friends and siblings. From around the 5th grade onwards, both the closeness to the parents and the siblings decreases in the course of the separation from the parental home; in return, the closeness to friends increases (Buhrmester, 1992).

Proximity and familiarity as a development-relevant variable

Studies on the cooperative processing of tasks show that friends of the same age work better together than those of the same age who do not know each other (Azmitia & Perlmutter, 1989). Apparently, a relationship that has existed for a long time ensures that the process of understanding necessary in a cooperation situation is easier to establish, which ultimately leads to more effective task processing. Siblings have a history of interaction that is even longer than that of friends of the same age. They know their respective strengths and weaknesses very well. In fact, in an experimental study (Azmitia & Hesser, 1993) children under the guidance of an older sibling achieved better results than under the guidance of an unfamiliar older child.

The emotional quality of sibling relationships

The extent to which sibling relationships represent a learning context for children and adolescents is likely to depend not only on the described cognitive-social quality of the relationship but also on its emotional nature. In an emotionally positive sibling relationship, familiarity with the strengths and weaknesses of the other should be more pronounced and the likelihood of positive asymmetrical (teaching, helping, supervising) and symmetrical behaviors (cooperating) being higher. The emotional quality of the sibling relationship, in turn, seems to be influenced by both the sibling constellation and the parenting behavior of the parents and the differences in temperament between the children.

Studies by Buhrmester and Furman (1990) have shown that the intimacy of sibling relationships is greater in female constellations than in male or mixed-sex ones. Two female siblings also spend more time together and feel more like their sibling than siblings in other constellations. Intimacy and affection are also more likely to be felt towards older sisters than towards older brothers and accordingly more prosocial behaviors are reported by older sisters.

In addition, the intimacy of sibling relationships is greater when the age gaps are small (less than 4 years) than when the age gaps are greater (4 years and more), but conflicts and rivalries then occur more frequently (Buhrmester & Furman, 1990).Affection towards the sibling is therefore reported more frequently with greater age gaps and, accordingly, with greater age gaps, prosocial behaviors occur more frequently.

Ultimately, younger and older siblings perceive the sibling relationship differently: younger siblings feel more intimacy in the sibling relationship than older siblings, and older siblings report conflicts more often than younger siblings.

Differences in temperament between siblings encourage conflict (Brody, 1998). It seems to be decisive which of the two siblings has the "more difficult" temperament. A difficult temper is characterized by low endurance and perseverance, a high level of activity and the uninhibited expression of frustration and anger. An understanding, more adaptable older sibling can evidently provide compensation in the case of a difficult younger sibling. Conversely, a younger sibling does not seem to succeed with a difficult older sibling.

Positive behavior on the part of parents towards their children promotes positive behavior in the sibling relationship. In particular, conversations between the mother and her older child about the younger sibling's needs and feelings are positively related to the affection that the older sibling directs towards the younger (Brody, 1998). To a certain extent, due to the different needs of differently developed children, it is imperative that parents pay more attention to younger children than to older ones. However, parents who treat their children unequally beyond this necessary level encourage rivalries among siblings, which can lead to behavioral problems (Dunn, 1992).

Unequal treatment of children often arises in the context of parental relationship problems, which can have a negative impact on the sibling relationship both indirectly and directly (Brody, 1998). However, if the parents have relationship problems or if one of the parents has health problems, older siblings can also have a buffering function for the well-being and development of the younger sibling. In cases in which parents only incompletely fulfill their caring role, this role is not infrequently taken on by an older sibling. If it takes a lot of time, this can have a negative effect on the older sibling's school grades (Brody, 2004).

Voluntary / involuntary relationship

The third dimension that distinguishes sibling relationships from other relationships is the involuntary nature of the relationship. Peer relationships vary in the degree of voluntariness; There are peer-to-peer relationships that are supported by institutional contexts such as school or sports clubs, others, such as close friendships, are usually self-chosen. In contrast to friendships, you cannot choose your own parents or siblings. You are born into both relationships. This fact ensures that in sibling relationships personalities come together that can be very different.

In addition, the phenomena of de-identification and the non-shared environment mean that siblings rarely develop in the same way (Dunn & Plomin, 1996; see also Kasten, 1994). Siblings are much more dissimilar than would be expected against the background of an average of 50 percent of the same genes. Apparently, the rivalry in sibling relationships ensures that each sibling develops their own characteristics and strives to occupy an “ecological niche” within the family.

Not only the rivalry between siblings, but also their different personalities contribute to a higher level of conflict in sibling relationships compared to other social relationships. Since sibling relationships continue to exist regardless of the will and action of the people involved, they are less endangered by open conflicts than, for example, friendship relationships. Studies on the social network of children and adolescents (Buhrmester, 1992) show that sibling relationships during primary school age have a much higher level of conflict than all other social relationships. However, as the intensity of the sibling relationship in adolescence decreases, so do the conflicts. In early adulthood, the conflicts in sibling relationships are roughly at the same level as in parent-child and early partnership relationships, but still higher than in close same-sex friendship relationships

The role of conflict in social and cognitive development

Conflicts in the sibling relationship are not just the opposite of closeness and close ties; rather, both often go hand in hand. The more intense the sibling relationship, the more often conflicts arise. Conflicts in sibling relationships develop their own quality for the social and cognitive development of children and adolescents. Studies on developing an understanding of the feelings and behaviors of others (Dunn, 1999) have shown that both cooperative play and conflict negotiation promote skills.

In contrast to conflicts in friendship relationships, conflicts in sibling relationships lead to the fact that arguments are exchanged more often instead of less often (Dunn, 1999). Studies comparing the quality of sibling relationships with that of friendship have shown that children who have more frequent conflicts with their siblings have more positive friendships (Brody, 1998). Apparently, in the sibling relationship, children learn conflict resolution strategies that make it easier for them to maintain friendship relationships.

On the other hand, there are also studies (deHart, 1999) that show that conflicts in sibling relationships are resolved differently than in friendship relationships, namely less often through negotiation and compromise and more often through dominant assertion, through withdrawal and by seeking help Third (especially the mother's). In addition, it is still largely unclear whether the learning of conflict resolution strategies takes place directly through interaction with the sibling, or whether the mother's more frequent intervention and dispute settlement is not the real factor in the learning process. Sibling quarrels are often an occasion for mothers to explain other behavior and social rules (Dunn et al., 1991; Ruffman et al., 1998).


Due to its special structure, the sibling relationship forms a learning context for children and young people that has its own unique qualities. The experiences that children and adolescents have in the sibling relationship differ significantly depending on the sibling position, i.e. the question of whether one has an older or a younger sibling (or both), as well as depending on the age differences. Larger age gaps have a positive effect on the cognitive quality of the sibling relationship (Cicirelli, 1994).

In addition to the cognitive quality, the emotional quality of the sibling relationship is likely to play a role in the social and cognitive development of children and adolescents, because it depends on how often and in what way (supportive or antagonistic) the siblings interact with one another. The emotional quality of the sibling relationship is also influenced by the sibling position and the age differences, but above all by the gender constellation, the temperament of the children and the parental behavior.

The skills and behaviors acquired in sibling relationships have an impact on later life. This is shown, for example, by the study by Toman (2002), in which it is shown how behaviors that can be traced back to one's own sibling constellation come to bear again later in the partnership relationship. Sibling relationships also form a lifelong bond that can still play an important, supportive role even in old age (Cicirelli, 1994).


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The author is a professor at the Department of Education at the University of Salzburg. Her work focuses on socialization (parents, peers and siblings, political socialization, moral and value development) and empirical educational research (social inequalities, interdisciplinary skills, cooperative learning).


University of Salzburg
Department of Education
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Created February 7th, 2014