A recent study published in Child Development found that the development of empathy in sibling pairs are linked. The study defined empathy as “the general capacity to share in the affective experiences of others.”
According to the researchers, empathy is apparent in children from their earliest days of life and promotes their future prosocial and altruistic behaviours.
Playful activities between siblings and conflicts between siblings have both been shown to contribute positively to social and emotional development in children. These interactions may give children opportunities to solve problems and allow them to see how their own actions may impact others.
This new statistical study of empathy in children allowed researchers to see significant change in the empathetic tendencies of younger and older siblings assessed both at the beginning of the study and 18 months later.
The researchers found that empathy from one sibling is linked to a reciprocal increase in the other sibling’s empathetic development. As well, greater age difference between siblings was correlated with greater empathetic development in the younger sibling.
“This is consistent with other studies showing that older siblings are better at modeling good behavior and teaching their younger siblings skills as they get older,” wrote Marc Jambon, a U of T postdoctoral fellow and the lead author of this study, in an email to The Varsity.
Jambon speculates that this may not apply to siblings who have a large age gap because they likely would not spend much time together. However, this particular study did not consider large age gaps as “all of the siblings were within 4 years of each other as part of the study design.”
The study also found that younger brothers did not positively correlate with their older sisters’ empathy. Instead, if younger brothers were observably less empathetic, there was a slight tendency for older sisters to become more empathetic over the 18 months.
In general, the results highlight that younger siblings tend to influence the character development of their older siblings just as much as their older siblings influence them. Jambon hopes that this finding will affect the design of family intervention programs aimed at promoting healthy social functioning in children.
“Most of those programs focus on training parents, and sometimes older siblings, on certain skills with the idea that they will transfer those benefits onto younger children in the family. And I think that’s certainly true, but there may also be merit in including younger siblings in that process as well, given that they may have a unique and meaningful influence on other family members as well,” wrote Jambon.