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The Sibling Effect on the Younger Child

Recently, we had a scene in the car… Gavin has a blue water bottle and Gareth has a yellow water bottle. They are both exactly the same except for the colour. Both bottles are clear so you can see that they contain water inside. Gavin was holding his water bottle and Gareth suddenly made a lunge for it. Thinking he wanted to drink some water, I whipped out his yellow water bottle and offered it to him. Gareth slapped my hand aside and made another grab for his brother’s bottle. Clearly what he wanted was not a drink of water but his brother’s water bottle. When he couldn’t get it, he threw a tantrum.

In Nurture Shock, they talked about the sibling effect where the best way to help an older child get along with a younger sibling is to make sure he has developed positive social skills with his friends before he gets a sibling. This is because friends don’t have to be your friend if they don’t like you, while siblings don’t really get a say in the matter because they are stuck with you whether they like it or not. Since a sibling has no choice but to be with you, you can be as mean as you like and he’ll still be there. If you did the same thing with your friends, you’d have no friends. Having friends before having a sibling, your older child gets to learn this lesson pretty quickly. As a result, he tends to be better to his younger sibling.

Well, this theory applies to the older child, but what about the younger child? The incident described above was just one of many with Gareth being the antagonist. Although I realise that Gareth is going through the “Obstinate Ones” and much of this may just be the result of the phase, I have been wondering about the sibling effect in relation to the younger child. What are the implications for a younger child who will never get to experience life with friends before having a sibling? Unfortunately, Bronson and Merryman did not discuss this in Nurture Shock.

Though I’m sure that Gareth will learn the rules of friendship when he gets to school and through interactions with god-siblings and other friends, I wonder how well he will be able to translate that back to his older brother when he finally does. In my experience and in the experience of those whom I know with two kids, it is usually the younger child that bullies the elder child. And, as they reported in Nurture Shock, the majority of the fights between my two boys have arisen from toy disputes.

What are your experiences? Have you experienced the opposite where your older child bullies your younger child? What is the age gap between your children?

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

2 thoughts on “The Sibling Effect on the Younger Child

  1. As a parent, I’ve fallen into the trap of assuming my elder one is at fault when some altercation happens between my two especially when the younger one was very little. I’m reminded of a time when my kids were about 18 months and 3 1/2 years old. Master One would scream crying while our backs were turned. We would always assume that Miss Three had hit him. One day, I stood watching the two of them. Miss Three was quietly watching TV, minding her own business. Master One walks up to her and smacks her on the head, then proceeds to cry and run to us. How cheeky was that?

    Back your issue though, I think it’s far more important for an older child to have developed coping skills since their world is “invaded” by a sibling whereas a younger child knows no different. They arrive in a world where a sibling is a given. The base that they start from is different from a first child. I know this probably doesn’t completely address your question. I wonder if there’s any research into coping skills of eldest children vs younger ones?


    1. Yes, that’s quite an interesting incident there and a good reminder that it is not always the fault of the older one… There is a tendency to assume the younger ones are more susceptible to bullying by the older one purely because of the age thing, but as demonstrated by your children, that is a flawed assumption.

      I would be interested in such research if there are any. Something to look into perhaps…


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