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Got brothers or sisters? Warm sibling bonds help boost happiness as you age

Credit: Lily Padula for NPR

The Science of Siblings is a new series exploring the ways our siblings can influence us, from our money and our mental health all the way down to our very molecules. We'll besharing these stories over the next few weeks.

Many of us have up and down relationships with our siblings. And those relationships can be most intense during adolescence.

I remember as a teenager all the ways my older sister reminded me she was in charge, like when she got her driver's license and insisted that I sit in the back seat when we picked up her friend, Pam, who got to sit up front. It was annoying.

But once we were out of the house in our 20s, our relationship evolved. We began to see each other as equals and friends. She still likes to take charge, though I admire her for that now because she's good at it. And somewhere along the way she became my biggest cheerleader, supporting me in my career and parenting. Our shared values and experiences have brought us close in middle age.

Turns out this bodes well for my and my sisters' emotional health. Researchers have found that a warm, close bond with a sibling in early adult life is predictive of greater resilience later in life, with less loneliness, anxiety and depression.

"I think it speaks to the salience of the sibling tie," saysMegan Gilligan, associate professor of human development and family science at the University of Missouri.

Gilligan and her colleagues analyzed survey data from hundreds of participants in the Family Transitions Project, a decades' long study of family relationships. They found people who reported higher levels of warmth and connection with their sibling at age 23, had lower levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms at age 41. "And we found the reverse, too," Gilligan says.

People who felt conflict in a sibling relationship at age 23, were more likely to report anxiety and other negative emotions at mid-life. The findings are published in The Journal of Family Psychology.

There tends to be a turning point in sibling relationships, typically around the age of 23. "The relationships shift," Gilligan says. And even though we never forget those early dynamics, the relationships tend to become more stable.

Given all the important relationships people have over a lifetime, with partners, children, friends and colleagues, the importance of sibling relationships can sometimes be hidden in plain sight. It's easy to take siblings for granted, but Gilligan says the "clear pattern" that emerged from her research demonstrates how early sibling relationships can influence emotional well-being into middle age and beyond. "It validates the importance of these ties," she says.

Another study that examined sibling relationships in later life found the significance of these relationships endures into retirement age. When researchers studied a sample of 608 older adults, aged 65 years – on average – they found that people who reported warm relations with siblings were less lonely.

Sibling conflict was tied to feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness. "Siblings are serving as a source of social support, decreasing these mental health [struggles]," Gilligan says.

And some bonds are tighter than others. Researchers found sisters had warmer relationships compared to those between brothers or between brothers and sisters.

Even if you're not best friends, sibling relationships can be strengthened. The key is to talk things through. Here are three tips to help.

Get your feelings out in the open.

It's easy to fall back into old dynamics, or be triggered by events from childhood. And if parents had favorites that can make the relationship harder.

Most siblings experience ups and downs in their relationships. "It's not a good strategy to let it go," Gilligan says. Instead it's best to acknowledge the past history and family dynamics and try to work through them. Just as in your relationships with friends or a spouse, our sibling relationships take nurturing and commitment.

Give your siblings some grace.

We tend to be more reactive with our siblings. A disagreement may take us back to the rocky relationships that are typical in childhood. But as adults, it's important to step back and see a situation from your sibling's point of view, even if that takes time and patience. "Everything looks different from different perspectives," says Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard, who studies mindfulness. Bickering is common in close relationships, Langer says, so it's helpful to be curious about your sibling's point of view, rather than judgmental. Understanding their perspective may help you understand their choices and actions.

Establish clear lines of communication

Caring for aging parents can be a big source of conflict for grown siblings. If you haven't been in the habit of relying on each other, the growing needs of parents can require time and commitment. "The division of care is one of the biggest sources of conflict," Gilligan says. Suddenly, you may need to be in constant contact. "And the reality for most families is that it's never going to be equal," she says. One way to reduce conflict is to set up a daily text or weekly FaceTIme call to make a plan and get on the same page. Being proactive in anticipating needs can help with planning and reduce stress.

More from the Science of Siblings series:

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.