Wellbeing

Does Comparing Yourself To Your Sibling Affect Who You Are?

Siblings are a lot of things: role models, best buddies, pains in the you-know-what. If you have them, you’ll understand what a regular part of your life they are (as in, they’ll regularly steal your clothes and leave them dirty on the floor). But have you ever stopped to think about what impact their constant presence has on your development?

It’s common to look at a family and try to piece together the gene pool. One has their mother’s brain, one a grandmother’s creative streak and the other their father’s eyes. But research has suggested that this comparing, as harmless as it may seem, can be detrimental to a person’s development.

Growing up with an older sister myself, I’ve always wondered if I would be a different person if I were born first, had a brother instead or even had no sibling at all.

So what effect does others comparing you to your sibling, and you comparing yourself, actually have?

Does birth order impact your personality traits?

The oldest are conservative, the youngest are spoilt and the middle ones suffer from a syndrome of the same name – we all know the stereotypes. Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler made studies around birth order popular; he was the first to figure out that the order in which you were born can actually have an affect on your personality.

It’s so common to compare ourselves to our siblings, we might even like to do it as some sort of lamentation that we lucked out. When in actual fact, having an older sibling of the same sex is good for healthy competition in life. The older sibling may be statistically more academic and ambitious, but younger children are more creative.

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Jules, 23, agrees, stating that this is true for her and her older sister, “She’s more mathematically minded, brilliant at physics and maths whereas I was good at English and History.” Sonia, 30, also feels this to be true, yet found the ‘role’ she took on as elder sister stunted her own creative endeavours. “I was always pushed into the more analytical and academic areas of study at school, while my younger sister was labelled The Creative. I was studying chemistry and advanced mathematics, wishing I was in drama and daydreaming of art and photography, never feeling like I had the chance to explore these areas in school. I actually struggled to realise and get behind my own creative potential for many years as a result, and it’s a feeling I still deal with today.”

Comparing yourself to a sibling won’t be on a level playing field

Brigham Young University researcher and author Alexander Jensen has pointed out how natural it is for younger siblings to compare themselves to their older siblings as they’ll always be at a more advanced stage in their lives. Think of being a kid and kicking yourself for not being able to count or read as competently as your older sibling can, or ride your BMX with as much confidence and ease.

My sister, being four years older than me, was congratulated for her beauty and grace at the same time I suffered through the painful throes of adolescence. Fourteen is an unfortunate time in the development of any teenage girl, but hearing my relatives praise my older sister for her achievements felt particularly harsh. What I didn’t realise then was how unreasonable it was for me to assume that we were comparable. At 18, she had just graduated high school and understood how to use bronzer properly, compared to my 14 years of shovelling peanut butter and figuring out how to stop my limbs from flailing about.

Parents who compare their children can impact their level of success

Jensen argues parents fall into the same trap of comparison, even if it’s not intentional, writing, “Offspring whom parents believed to be relatively more academically competent outperformed their siblings in school, and offspring whom parents believed to be relatively less competent were outperformed by their siblings.”

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If your parents are convinced that your older sibling is more “academic” and you’re more “athletic” it’s likely you’ll settle into the role that has been carved for you. In fact, research has shown that older siblings have an average of 2.3 more points on the IQ scale than their younger siblings. Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkel and Oprah Winfrey are all first born. And as The Guardian notes, “All 12 men to have walked on the moon were either eldest or only children.”

But the first born being the most successful is a result of nurture, not genetics. Petter Kristensen of Oslo University found that in cases where an older sibling passed and the next sibling in the birth order takes the familial responsibility, they increase in IQ. He explains, “The relation between birth order and IQ scores is dependent on the social rank in the family and not birth order as such.”

There may be statistical precedent for older siblings to succeed over younger siblings, but if you take the comparison out of the equation and focus on individual strengths, birth order isn’t an issue.

There is a solution, and it isn’t terrible

Researchers from Brigham Young University published a paper examining the impact that comparing siblings has on their future success. They warned parents that allowing children to be aware of their differences, rather than applauding their individuality, can be quite damaging. The study’s lead author, Jensen, stated, “It’s hard for parents to not notice or think about differences between their children. It’s only natural. But to help all children succeed, parents should focus on recognising the strengths of each of their children and be careful about vocally making comparisons in front of them.”

The way around negative effects of comparison is to celebrate the unique abilities, skills and qualities you all posses, instead of commenting on the lack of a common trait. And obviously, there is enormous benefit to having brothers and/or sisters. Studies have also shown that having siblings makes you more empathetic, kind and easier to get along with. In other words, you’re probably a great human because of their existence (and vice versa). Siblings are also just really fun to shoot the shit with and reminisce about childhood memories.

After all, there is literally no one else in the world you can scream at with pure fury and rage, then split a tub of ice cream with a mere minute later.

Lead image: Beyonce Tumblr.


Josephine is a writer from western Sydney who likes to blatantly lie on her bios. She played the youngest sister in 80s sitcom Family Ties and looks fantastic running with a backpack on. Follow her on twitter here