Children whose older brothers and sisters are kind, warm, and supportive are more empathic than children whose siblings lack these characteristics, researchers from the University of Calgary, Universite Laval, Tel Aviv University, and the University of Toronto, found. The researchers also found both older and younger siblings positively influence each others’ empathic concern over time.
“Our findings emphasise the importance of considering how all members of the family, not just parents and older siblings, contribute to children’s development,” suggested Sheri Madigan, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Calgary, who coauthored the study.
“The influence of younger siblings has been found during adolescence, but our study indicates that this process may begin much earlier than previously thought.”
The longitudinal study, published in the journal Child Development, looked at whether younger siblings also contribute to their older sisters’ and brothers’ empathy in early childhood, when empathic tendencies begin to develop.
Researchers studied an ethnically diverse group of 452 Canadian sibling pairs and their mothers. They wanted to determine whether levels of empathy in 18- and 48-month-old siblings at the start of the study predicted changes in the other siblings’ empathy 18 months later.
The researchers videotaped interactions in the families’ homes and mothers completed questionnaires. Children’s empathy was measured by observing each sibling’s behavioural and facial responses to an adult researcher who pretended to be distressed (e.g. after breaking a cherished object) and hurt (e.g. after hitting her knee and catching her finger in a briefcase).
“Although it’s assumed that older siblings and parents are the primary socialising influences on younger siblings’ development (but not vice versa), we found that both younger and older siblings positively contributed to each other’s empathy over time,” explained Marc Jambon, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto.
“These findings stayed the same, even after taking into consideration each child’s earlier levels of empathy and factors that siblings in a family share - such as parenting practices or the family’s socioeconomic status - that could explain similarities between them.”
The researchers also examined whether siblings’ development of empathy differed as a result of age and gender differences between siblings (eg. younger brother/older sister versus younger brother/older brother).
“The effects stayed the same for all children in the study with one exception: Younger brothers didn’t contribute to significant changes in older sisters’ empathy,” Jambon added.
The authors suggest that an important next step is to determine if and how we can cultivate empathic tendencies in young children, and whether teaching one sibling, either older or younger, can in turn affect the empathy of the other sibling.