Siblings play just a big a role in shaping us as do our parents -- but sisters have a unique influence all their own.
Families are our first point of reference when growing up; our family relationships are deeply important and affect every aspect of our being. We often focus on the parent-child relationship — sometimes called a “vertical” relationship — which is paramount in childhood and throughout an individual’s life. But in recent years, various mental health professionals have reminded us of the importance of “horizontal” relationships: those between siblings.
Lisbeth Von Benedek, a psychoanalyst and author of the French book Frères et soeurs pour la vie (“Brothers and sisters for life”), claims, “In a way — differently, but just as much as parents — brothers and sisters participate in the structuring of our identities.” Psychology professor André Renaud likewise confirms that connections between brothers and sisters influence their future behavior and help forge their personalities.
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In particular, brothers and sisters teach us about complex emotions — that it is possible to love and admire someone while also envying them and being jealous of them. Professor Tony Cassidy, of Ulster University in Northern Ireland, has carried out many studies that examine family structure and its effect on young adults’ ability to find happiness. Through his study Family Structure and Psychological Health in Young Adults, which included a sample size of 708 people between 18 and 21 years old, Cassidy came to a variety of conclusions, some rather surprising. In fact, it would seem that having one or two sisters increases our chances of finding happiness once we are adults, compared to having just brothers. Here are a few explanations of his findings:
Greater optimism and more solid relationships
The study clearly found that having one or two sisters allows us to be more optimistic in life. People with one or more sisters have a less pessimistic vision of life and suffer less psychological distress. It would seem that sisters help us to see life through rose-tinted glasses! They help communication within the family by encouraging family members to speak. Adults who grew up with sisters are more sociable and develop relationships more easily than those who only had brothers, or no siblings at all. Having grown up in an environment that favored the sharing of emotions, they are more inclined to appreciate the feelings of others, as well as to express their own.
More support and endurance when faced with life’s hardships
Families made up of at least one daughter also seem to offer more support, possibly because women are more willing to encourage conversation within the family, during both smooth and rough times. A sister provides a more attentive ear than a brother, favoring discussion during a conflict. This helps to avoid things being left unsaid, which is often at the root of family battles.
With a sister, we are more at ease expressing our feelings, perhaps because she reminds us of a reassuring motherly figure. Thanks to these conversations, we build a higher capacity to cope with all the ordeals life throws at us, and to overcome them. The study effectively shows that children from blended families, or those in which the parents are divorced, show fewer scars by adulthood when there is at least one girl among the siblings.
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Sisters also seem to be better mediators than brothers within the family unit. They help resolve problems, and give an example of diplomacy and mediation that the other siblings can draw from when they have their own families.
Favor communication to the max
So, you might be asking: What can we do when we can’t choose whether we have a sister or not? Obviously, except in the case of adoption, we don’t decide the sex of our children, and our parents didn’t decide whether to give us a sister or not. Nevertheless, Cassidy’s recommendation to families with only one child, or those with a tribe of boys, is to encourage as much family communication as possible. This means fostering emotional expression in each family member, so that all learn how to listen to others and how to be in touch with their own feelings.
In any event, with or without brothers and sisters, the most important thing is the ability to express ourselves fairly and freely. In this way, we will be able to get a load off our chest, listen to our loved ones, and build happier and more balanced relationships with others in our everyday lives.
This article was originally published in the French edition of Aleteia, and has been translated and/or adapted here for English speaking readers.