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10.04.2023Elke Jauk-Offner

For a lifetime

Sometimes rivals, sometimes allies, sometimes intimate love, sometimes fierce conflict – it is a constant game of forces: the relationship between siblings is one of the longest and most intense bonds in life. There is something fateful about a sibling relationship: you cannot choose it and it continues over the years even without contact. Family psychologist Harald Werneck from the Institute of Developmental Psychology at the University of Vienna talks about influential experiences, stereotypes and the playground for social learning.


F A M I L I F E — “Indians are either on the warpath or smoke the peace pipe. Siblings can do both. ” Kurt Tucholsky is said to have remarked that once. Is that so? Harald Werneck — The great closeness that usually prevails between siblings can be associated with very ambivalent feelings. Feelings of intense connection and love can alternate with rivalry, quarrel and mutual nerves or can be experienced at the same time. You know a lot about each other, sometimes you’re more closely connected than you’d like.


You can’t choose family. How influential is a relationship between siblings?

H W — This depends on factors such as age difference or whether siblings grew up with the same parent or parents or not. Since childhood experiences are very influential and siblings are often the people with whom the most time is spent in childhood, one can assume that sibling relationships are very influential – for example, as a model for other and later social relationships. Another peculiarity is that sibling relationships are inalienable. No matter what.


How important or not are siblings at all?

H W — As a rule, siblings are the people you know the longest – from earliest childhood, yes, from birth to the death of a brother or sister. They’re also the people you’re closest to. Emotionally, but sometimes also spatially – especially in childhood, and often again at an advanced age, when, for example, one’s own partners have died.

Do siblings really argue as often as parents often feel?

H W — The extent of quarrel and rivalry depends, among other things, on age, gender and personality, but also on how parents treat their children. Who perceives more conflict and how it is experienced can be very different, between parents and children, between siblings, between parents.


Should parents intervene in conflicts?

H W — That depends on the extent of the conflict and the power gap between the siblings: if, for example, the older brother regularly beats the younger sister, the parents will have to intervene. As a parent, however, one should stay away from conflicts as far as possible and only intervene as far as possible, for example by proposing solutions as one deems necessary, so that no child is harmed or has to suffer. This requires a good knowledge of the children and the necessary “fingertip”. In principle, conflicts with siblings offer an ideal playground for social learning, for example in order to test solution strategies.


How do you treat siblings equally or is that not a sensible claim?

H W — All children, even identical twins, have their own personality, individual needs, desires, abilities. So they’re not the same. In this respect, equal treatment would not be for the benefit of all and cannot therefore be the objective. Parents should try to accommodate all children in the same way by responding to individual needs as well as possible. This can look and be designed differently for every child.

What is the importance of separate activities with siblings?

H W — That depends largely on what the children want. A healthy balance between common, unifying and then separate activities is generally advisable. The appropriate proportion certainly depends on the age gap. The older the older sibling child becomes, the more significant and important social interactions in the peer group become for the development of identity.


Are there “better” sibling constellations than others, for example in terms of age or gender?

H W — A smaller age gap between siblings is usually associated with greater closeness, in both a positive and a negative sense, because this also creates rivalry. With a large age gap, children may in fact also grow up more as single children or with little interaction with each other. Sisters often have a more intense sibling relationship. There is no universally valid “patent formula” for the ideal sibling relationship. The outwardly identical constellation, for example an older sister and a brother three years younger, can lead in one case to a sibling relationship experienced as almost ideal, in the other case to the opposite.


The position of the youngest, the middle, the oldest child – it is often associated with certain attributions, have this authority?

H W — These stereotypical attributions may be justified, but they do not have to be. The classic clichés of “first-born”, “sandwich children” or “nest hooks” are empirically untenable and have sometimes proved to be methodical artifacts and inadmissible generalizations. Who we are and how we are depends only to a very small extent on our sibling position.


How can the sibling relationship change in adulthood?

H W – In adulthood, the focus is usually on partner relationships and starting one’s own family, while the sibling relationship is somewhat neglected. Interestingly, however, the sibling relationship often becomes more significant in old age and a rapprochement occurs again – emotionally, for example through the shared family history, sometimes even spatially.

Elke Jauk-Offner
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