From the moment they enter this world younger siblings become a nuisance. Suddenly, their wailing cries and stinky diapers demand all of the attention. As they get older, they start to steal your toys and then your clothing. They sabotage your play dates, intrude in your personal space, blame you for everything, and seemingly annoy you on purpose.
They also make you a more empathetic person.
Extensive research has shown that big siblings can have a big influence on their mini-mes. Older brothers and sisters often take on the role of teacher, while younger siblings mimic their behavior for better or worse.
Now, researchers at the University of Calgary have taken a bottom-up approach in the study of how siblings influence development to see how younger siblings impact their bigger kin. Their study, published in the journal Child Development, suggests both older and younger siblings positively influence each other’s empathy
"Although it's assumed that older siblings and parents are the primary socializing 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, who led the study, in a statement.
Researchers videotaped interactions in the homes of more than 400 Canadian sibling pairs from a range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Their empathy was measured by seeing how they responded to an adult who pretended to be upset or hurt.
They found that empathy is among the many things younger siblings copy from their big siblings, and vice versa.
As long as one sibling is kind, thoughtful, and empathetic then the other will show these same characteristics.
The findings go beyond age and gender differences between siblings and, with the exception of one scenario, the effects stayed the same. Younger brothers don’t really dictate how their big sisters feel.
Siblings with a bigger age gap also had a bigger influence on each other than those closer in age, suggesting they take on a role of role models.
Growing up, siblings spend more time with each other than with friends or parents but researchers say teaching the importance of empathy extends beyond them.
"Our findings emphasize the importance of considering how all members of the family, not just parents and older siblings, contribute to children's development," said co-author of the study Sheri Madigan. "The influence of younger siblings has been found during adolescence, but our study indicates that this process may begin much earlier than previously thought."
Understanding how empathy works between siblings could help parents and researchers promote positive relationships.
Let’s be real. All the annoyances that come with younger siblings aside, they somehow weasel their way into becoming our best friends and we wouldn't be without them.