Essential elements of the sibling experience: A study of twenty adults' perceptions of an important sibling relationship

Christina Whitbeck (1990)

Despite the pervasiveness of the sibling experience and its frequent appearance in case studies, until this decade little was written directly on the subject. Much has yet to be known about the nature and role of sibling relationships. This study took a broad look at the sibling experience as a whole. It inquired into adults' conscious perceptions of the general nature and history of one important sibling relationship, the salient factors they see as shaping that relationship, and how they perceive the relationship as influencing them. Twenty adults were interviewed about one important sibling relationship. The results were analyzed to see what themes appeared. Those themes were then organized under a general conceptual framework. Five major themes emerged from the analysis: sibling rivalry; sibling bonding (including the use of siblings as self-objects and parental substitutes); the role of siblings in identity formation; the impact of parents and family on the sibling relationship; and, finally, an adult phase, including important evaluations and reevaluations of the sibling relationship and its effect on the subject. Also, one central trend emerged across the themes--the fundamental difference between the older and the younger sibling's experience. Taken as a whole, the results of this study suggest the breadth, depth and complexity of the sibling experience. This study is seen as a preliminary step in understanding the sibling experience and in alerting clinicians to some of the important issues arising from it. The findings have implications for further study.