For decades, researchers have demonstrated the numerous ways in which parents can positively influence their children’s development. This includes how confident they are, how well they do in school and how they interact with their friends.
Far less attention has focused on the impact of children’s relationships with their brothers and sisters, despite the fact that most people grow up with at least one sibling and they tend to spend more time with one another than with parents or friends.
Our research at the University of Calgary and the University of Toronto shows that siblings, like parents, can have a dramatic impact on one another’s development. We’ve found, for example, that warmth and support from an older sibling can help boost the younger sibling’s language development and their understanding of others’ minds and points of view.
In a new paper, published today in the journal Child Development, we show that siblings can also play a role in the development of empathy.
We found that children who are kind, supportive and understanding influence their siblings to act and behave in similar ways. And if one sibling is struggling to be empathic but has a sibling with strong empathy skills, they manage to become more empathic over time.
Studying sibling empathy
A child who demonstrates strong empathy skills is able to show feelings of care and concern for others in need.
Learning to be empathic early in development can set in motion lifelong strengths in treating others with kindness, respect and understanding. Empathic children become empathic friends, spouses and parents.
In the research context, we study empathy by observing how young children respond to an adult who pretends to be upset when they broke a cherished object, hit their knee or caught their finger in a briefcase.