Sibling Influence: It’s More Powerful Than You Think
I should have known something was unusual. When does my 14-year-old brother ever insist that I check on our little white rabbit? Naively, I opened the back door. With a resounding roar, a cascade of oak apples, spiky gumball tree “bombs,” nut hulls, and a host of outdoor oddities rained down from above, covering the outdoor mat and bouncing into the house. I stared at the now-empty cardboard box, cleverly secured to the wooden awning by a rope-and-stick mechanism. And of course, I had two brothers filming the event from different angles. Too bad for them. I had opened the door slowly, sending nature’s ammunition on the ground instead of my head. Brothers.
As the oldest of six siblings, I’ve experienced a fair share of practical jokes at the hands of my brothers and sisters (and maybe contributed a few myself). We’re a pretty close bunch, and I know that my two sisters and three brothers have played — and continue to play — a huge role in developing me as a person.
Not surprisingly, brothers and sisters play an important role in influencing each others’ behavior. Research shows that siblings generally spend more time together than with parents or friends, and the bonds between siblings often outlast spouses or parents. Though siblings’ roles in the family are often overlooked by scholars, the impact of siblings on development and wellbeing (both positive and negative) are substantial.
Healthy sibling relationships come with a variety of benefits. Researcher Susan McHale of Penn State University comments, “Throughout the lifespan, people who have close sibling relationships have better mental health, better psychological health, and better social relationships, generally speaking.” Peer-reviewed research done by the University of Missouri agrees. In a study of 246 Mexican-origin families, the university found that older siblings in positive relationships with younger siblings were least likely to feel depressed or engage in risky sexual behavior.
Influencer status, however, is not just reserved for older kids. Research done by the University of Calgary and the University of Toronto discovered that “both younger and older siblings uniquely contribute to each others’ empathy development.” The blessings extend past childhood. In a study sample of 57,000 adults, researchers discovered that the likelihood of divorce decreases by 2% to 3% with each additional sibling.
But influence can also work in reverse. As many parents can attest, sibling conflict can be extremely intense and even aggressive. Relationships marked by frequent negativity and bullying double the likelihood of depression, anxiety, and self-harm. Poor relationships also increase participation in alcohol abuse and drug use and are connected with higher sexual risk behaviors. Sarah Killoren, an assistant professor of human development and family science, explains, “Siblings who are hostile and negative with one another will use that interaction style with their peers. Most peers won’t respond well to hostility and negativity, so these youth may be more likely to hang out with a deviant peer group and, in turn, engage in risky behaviors.” In addition, older children can introduce their younger siblings to abusive substances or immoral activities and present the usage of such things in a positive light.
While the dynamics of the sibling relationship change as siblings grow up and leave the house, we Christians still interact regularly with our “brothers and sisters” in Christ. Though no longer blood-related, we are nonetheless part of the growing family of God. Each of us has our roles to play in this family for the betterment and encouragement of our spiritual “siblings.”
These relationships impact others and shape us more than we’d like to think. Perhaps this is why the apostles stress the power of influences within the family of Christ. Paul, writing to the Corinthian church, urges them not to associate with anyone who “bears the name of brother” but lives in active disobedience to God’s Word (1 Corinthians 5:11). In Ephesians 5:1, he encourages his readers to be imitators of God as beloved children. Similarly, the Apostle John and the author of Hebrews counsel believers to imitate what is good (3 John 1:11; Hebrews 13:7).
As brothers and sisters in God’s family, we share the responsibility of setting Christ-like examples for each other (1 Timothy 4:12; Ephesians 5:8). Grown siblings know that the time of childhood and regular interaction is short. But through the long process of sacrifice and love, the examples we set and the bonds we form can endure a lifetime.
Regardless of whether we have siblings or good relationships with them, Christians belong to an ever-expanding spiritual family. Take time to enjoy the people God has placed in your life, whether blood-related or blood-redeemed. Who knows? The blessings from these relationships might rain down in surprising ways.