The sibling bond is complex, changing and influenced by many things. Judy Dunn, whose pioneering sibling studies conducted in her native England and the US, maintains that even from the tender age of 1, kids respond to disputes between their siblings by supporting or punishing one of the antagonists. These same young siblings are profoundly affected by their mother’s interaction with the other siblings.
‘Children are far more socially sophisticated than we ever imagined. That little 15 month old is watching like a hawk what goes on between her mother and older sibling. And the greater the difference in the maternal affection and attention, the more hostility and conflict between the siblings.’
From 18 months on, siblings understand how to comfort, hurt and exacerbate each other’s pain. They understand family ‘rules’, can differentiate between transgressions of different sorts, and can anticipate the response of adults to their own and to other people’s wrong-doing.
By 3 years old, they have a sophisticated grasp of how to use social rules to their own end. They can evaluate themselves in relation to their siblings and have the necessary developmental skills to adapt to frustrating circumstances and relationships in the family. Whether they have the drive to adapt and get along with a sibling whose goals and interests may be different from their own, can make the difference between a co-operative or competitive relationship.
Kids are highly sensitive to how they’re treated in relation to their siblings. When a parent shows more love, gives more attention or is unable or unwilling to monitor the goings-on between children, it’s often the siblings and their connections that suffer. Even though the social awareness and development of children is far more sophisticated than we think, they don’t yet have the ability to understand who or what may have turned them against one another. Most rivalrous adult siblings can’t see the total picture either.