Children with siblings who displays more empathy are likely to develop more empathy themselves, finds a new early childhood development study.

A recent social development research project found that not only do older siblings influence their younger siblings’ early social development, but the opposite is also true: younger siblings influence their older siblings’ development.

Traditional family services focus on parents and older siblings to support early childhood development. This study suggests that services should widen their attention to everyone in the family, including younger siblings.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the general capacity to share the feelings of others. ‘Empathic concern’ is defined as feelings of care and concern for others’ well-being. Empathic concern has been found in infants as young as 8-10 months of age. Toddlers aged 14 to 20 months respond to others’ distress with facial and vocal expressions. As their social development continues, they try to help and comfort the person in trouble.

The development of empathy is a central feature of early childhood development. It drives altruistic and prosocial behavior and is associated with less aggression, bullying and disruptive behavior.

Parents and siblings influence empathy

Most research on the topic has focused on how parents influence the social development of empathy in children. Discipline, emotion coaching and socialisation techniques have all been shown to affect the development of empathy. Moreover, warm parent-child relationships are associated with greater empathy.

Much less research has examined how older siblings influence the development of empathy in their younger brothers and sisters. Children who grow up with older siblings are likely to spend more time with them than with their parents. So older siblings would be expected to influence early childhood development, and research has demonstrated that they do so.

Relatively few researchers have examined how younger brothers and sisters may affect their older siblings’ social development. Recent research has found that younger siblings can increase the likelihood of disruptive behavior in older siblings. On a more positive note, other research has shown that a warmer sibling relationship is linked to more empathy and prosocial behavior on the part of both the older and the younger sibling, at the same time protecting them both from adverse environmental factors.

Modern theories of early childhood development emphasise the significance of all relationships for a child’s social development, as well as the reciprocal nature of every relationship. That includes relationships with parents and adults, siblings and peers, both older and younger. This perspective suggests that we shouldn’t ignore the potential impact of younger siblings.

The social development research project in Canada

The recent study looked at 452 sibling pairs in Canada. The sample was diverse, including 42% immigrant families. Empathy in the two siblings was observed directly by exposing them to an unfamiliar adult exhibiting pain and sadness, and then coding their responses from a video record. The siblings were tested in this way twice – once when the younger sibling was 18 months old and again at 36 months old. The older siblings varied in age.

The research found that having a more empathic sibling – whether older or younger – was related to a greater increase in empathy between the two tests, 18 months apart.

The researchers then looked at factors that might shape the influences on early childhood development in different ways. They found two significant things.

  • The age gap. A bigger age gap increased the older sibling’s influence on the younger sibling, but made no difference the other way around.
  • The gender of the siblings. Having an empathic younger brother had no influence on the development of empathy in an older sister.

How do younger siblings influence empathy in their older brothers or sisters?

Perhaps when younger siblings mimic the caring behavior of their older brother or sister, this reinforces the older sibling’s behavior. Perhaps the experience of an empathic younger sibling is particularly rewarding and fulfilling for the older brother or sister.

The increased influence of an older sibling who is further away in age supports the idea that older siblings can support early childhood development through teaching and modelling of caring and prosocial behavior.

Implications for early childhood development support services

This research on siblings once again emphasises the intensely social nature of early childhood development, as we have set out on the Child and Family Blog in background pieces on cognitive development and on social and emotional development. It challenges the idea that we only need to account for older siblings’ influence on younger siblings.

As such, this study, like many others, suggests that services supporting early childhood development should engage the whole family and consider how all individuals relate to one another within it.

Header photo: hjl. Creative Commons.

References

 Jambon M, Madigan S, Plamondon A, Daniel E & Jenkins JM (2018), The development of empathic concern in siblings: a reciprocal influence model, Child Development