Sibling Relationships and Empathy Across the Transition to Adolescence
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- Lam, C.B., Solmeyer, A.R. & McHale, S.M. J Youth Adolescence (2012) 41: 1657. doi:10.1007/s10964-012-9781-8
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Although socioemotional competencies have been identified as key components of youths’ positive development, most studies on empathy are cross-sectional, and research on the role of the family has focused almost exclusively on parental socialization. This study examined the developmental course of empathy from age 7 to 14 and the within-person associations between sibling warmth and conflict and youths’ empathy. On three occasions across 2 years, mothers, fathers, and the two eldest siblings from 201 White, working- and middle-class families provided questionnaire data. Multilevel models revealed that, controlling for youths’ pubertal status and parental education, girls’ empathy increased during the transition to adolescence and then leveled off, but boys’ lower levels of empathy remained relatively unchanged. Moreover, controlling for parental responsiveness and marital love, at times when firstborns and second-borns reported more sibling warmth and less sibling conflict than usual, they also reported more empathy than usual. The within-person association between sibling warmth and empathy also became stronger over time. Findings highlight gender differences in empathy development and the unique role of siblings in shaping each other’s socioemotional characteristics during adolescence.
KeywordsEmpathy developmentGender differentiationFamily systemsSibling relationshipsMultilevel modeling
Recent research has highlighted socioemotional competencies, such as emotion regulation, perspective taking, and social awareness, as key ingredients for youths’ positive development (Spinrad and Eisenberg 2009). The present study focused on empathy, the tendency to identify with and vicariously experience another’s feelings (Eisenberg 2005). Although there is evidence that empathy continues to change through adolescence and adulthood (Grühn et al. 2008), the majority of empathy research has been cross-sectional and conducted with young children. Given that empathy is a gendered quality (Rose and Rudolph 2006), our first aim was to chart the developmental course of empathy from age 7 to 14 and to test whether the trajectory differed for girls and boys.
Numerous studies have identified the family as a primary source of socialization for youths’ socioemotional development, including empathy (Eisenberg et al. 2009). Most research, however, has focused on the role of parents and overlooked other family members. In childhood, older sisters and brothers act as socialization agents for their younger siblings’ social and cognitive development (Dunn 2002). The non-elective, complementary nature of sibling relationships creates a unique context in which children can learn about perspective taking and emotionally intense exchanges (Katz et al. 1992), but these dynamics have not been studied much in adolescents. Our second aim was to address this gap in the family socialization literature by testing the within-person associations between sibling warmth and conflict and youths’ empathy and examining the roles of birth order and chronological age in these associations.
Empathy Development in Adolescence
Individuals experience empathy when they understand another’s thoughts or feelings and have an emotional response that mirrors that of the other (Eisenberg 2005). Empathy is important, because it is often a precursor of and motivation for prosocial action (Eisenberg et al. 2009; Hoffman 2001): Youths who demonstrate empathy are more likely to behave in prosocial ways, such as helping, sharing, and volunteering their time (Spinrad and Eisenberg 2009).
Empathy is grounded in increasingly complex cognitive skills, including putting oneself in another’s situation and being able to imagine others’ emotional states, and it continues to change throughout the lifespan (Grühn et al. 2008). Although most research has focused on empathy development in young children, the cognitive and social advances of adolescence have implications for empathy development. For example, brain regions that are involved in social cognitive processing undergo major changes during adolescence, and changes in these cortical and subcortical areas are associated with adolescents’ increasing ability to infer mental states and take another’s perspective (Decety 2010). The complex social worlds of adolescents also create new opportunities for empathic understanding between friends, romantic partners, and peers (Eisenberg et al. 2009). Therefore, one would expect youths to show a general increase in empathy across adolescence. It is important to note that empathy is a gendered quality, with girls generally exhibiting more sensitivity to others’ feelings and emotions than boys (Rose and Rudolph 2006). Further, according to gender intensification theory, at the transition to adolescence, youths face increased socialization pressure to conform to traditional gender roles (Galambos et al. 2009). Therefore, one would also expect girls to have both higher levels of and more pronounced increases in empathy than boys during adolescence.
Findings on age-graded differences in empathy among adolescents are mixed, however. Although some cross-sectional studies indicate that older adolescents report higher levels of empathy than younger adolescents (Strayer and Roberts 1997; Tonks et al. 2007), others suggest that empathy does not differ across age groups (Adams 1983; Karniol et al. 1998). There is also cross-sectional evidence for a decrease in empathy for boys between ages 8 and 15 (Saklofske and Eysenck 1983) and an increase in empathy for girls between ages 13 and 16 (Olweus and Endresen 1998). Longitudinal data yield similarly inconsistent results. In a 3-wave, longitudinal study, Davis and Franzoi (1991) documented a linear increase in empathy from age 14 to 18. In a 6-wave, longitudinal study of 26 youths, Eisenberg et al. (2005) found that, although perspective taking showed a linear increase from age 15 to 26, sympathy did not change over time. In a 2-wave, longitudinal study of Spanish youths, Mestre et al. (2009) found that girls’ empathy increased at a faster rate than did boys’ from age 13 to 14. Taken together, these findings suggest somewhat conflicting patterns of change across adolescence for girls and boys.
Sibling Relationships and Empathy
Previous research has identified the family as a key context for children’s social, cognitive, and emotional development, but the vast majority has focused on parenting and parent–child relationships (Eisenberg et al. 2009; Hoffman 2001). Parents may actively encourage their child’s empathy, such as by discussing emotional responses when the child experiences distress or rewarding the child for caring and helping behaviors (Krevans and Gibbs 1996). Experiences with a supportive and sensitive parent also may help promote empathy by enhancing children’s sense of connection to others and recognition of the value of other individuals (Staub 1992), or by providing a role model for empathic behavior. Expanding on research on parental influences, we explored the role of another fundamental family relationship—the sibling relationship—and tested the links between sibling warmth and conflict and youths’ empathy across the transition to adolescence.
Although parents are a primary source of socialization, sibling interactions afford unique opportunities for children to learn about their own and others’ affective responses and emotions (Dunn 1998). For many children, a sister or brother is the first person with whom they share secrets, argue, and negotiate. Unlike parent–child relationships, in which the roles of “parent” and “child” are complementary and parents often serve as instructors and a source of guidance, sibling relationships can be peer-like, characterized by more reciprocal social exchanges. In contrast to peer relationships, however, sibling relationships are non-elective and thus can be taken for granted, and because siblings spend substantial amounts of time together, often without adult supervision, they must learn to avoid or manage conflict (Katz et al. 1992). Their constant companionship, shared history of family experiences, and sometimes competing interests and needs make for emotionally intense relationships, or a “love-hate” dynamic (Dunn 2002). As such, sibling relationships constitute a distinct component of the family context, one in which youths can learn and practice a range of social competencies, including understanding another’s emotional state and point of view (Dunn 1998; Harris 1994).
Research with young children has shown that siblings serve as socialization agents for each other’s socioemotional development (Downey and Condron 2004; Stormshak et al. 1996). When they are as young as 2 years old, children display behaviors designed to provoke or upset a sibling, behaviors that require a sophisticated understanding of the sibling’s point of view (Dunn and Munn 1985). By the preschool years and in middle childhood, children who have warm, cooperative sibling relationships are more socially competent and better able to label emotions and take others’ perspectives (Azmitia and Hesser 1993; Dunn et al. 1991; Howe and Ross 1990). Some studies also indicate that moderate levels of sibling conflict may teach children about compromise, turn-taking, and problem solving (Stormshak et al. 1996). Others further suggest that it is how children work through sibling conflict, rather than the overalllevel of conflict, that has positive implications for emotional understanding (Katz et al. 1992; Ross et al. 2006). Because older siblings tend to be more advanced than younger siblings in their socioemotional development, especially during early childhood (East 2009), most studies frame their analyses to examine older siblings’ influences on their younger siblings. Younger siblings’ influences on their older sisters and brothers are rarely explored.
Another question that remains underexplored is whether siblings continue to have an impact on empathy in adolescence, when relationships with peers and others outside the family become increasingly important. There are a number of reasons to expect that the answer is yes. First, siblings remain a salient part of adolescents’ social environments (East 2009). Second, the dramatic biological and social changes during adolescence that are thought to contribute to empathy development may also represent new opportunities for siblings to shape each other’s empathy. For young adolescents with an emerging interest in forging deeper and more intimate friendships, a close bond with a sister or brother might be a place to gain a better understanding of emotions and reciprocity in supportive exchanges (Howe et al. 2001). A relationship characterized by hostility and conflict might discourage compassion and perspective taking (Howe et al. 2001), although it might also serve as a learning opportunity and motivation for adolescents to develop interpersonal skills that can be applied in other relationships (Katz et al. 1992). Few have studied the reverse direction of effect, but it is likely that these links are bidirectional: Youths who are more empathic may be more appealing social partners, and thus more likely to forge positive relationships with their sisters and brothers.
The literature on sibling influences on empathy and other socioemotional domains in adolescence is less developed than the work with young children. Howe et al. (2001) found that, when presented with a hypothetical interpersonal problem, young adolescents who had warm relationships with their siblings were more likely to generate specific solutions to the problem. The authors argued that a close sibling relationship provides youths with the opportunity to gain insights into others’ internal states, which in turn promotes their social and problem solving abilities. Using the first wave of data from the same dataset as the current study, Tucker et al. (1999) showed that sibling warmth was associated with higher levels of empathy for second-born siblings, but not for the young adolescent firstborn siblings. However, this analysis was conducted separately for each sibling and did not formally test for birth order differences. The cross-sectional design also limited its ability to capture longitudinal and within-person changes in youths’ empathy. With respect to the role of sibling conflict, some have showed that sibling disputes may allow youths (aged 4–12 years) to practice persuasive negotiation and see another’s point of view (Ross et al. 2006). Few studies on this topic have been conducted with adolescents, however.
The Current Study
Although empathy is known to play a critical role in motivating youths’ prosocial behaviors (Eisenberg et al. 2009; Hoffman 2001), surprisingly little research is available on how it changes as youths make the transition from childhood to adolescence or whether adolescent-aged siblings may contribute to each other’s empathy development. Using 3-wave, longitudinal data collected from firstborn and second-born siblings, the goals of the current study were to examine the developmental course of empathy from middle childhood to early adolescence and the within-person associations between sibling warmth and conflict and youths’ empathy.
To address our first goal, we used a multilevel modeling (MLM) strategy to chart the growth curve of empathy from age 7 to 14. Because brain areas that are involved in social cognitive processing undergo major changes during adolescence (Decety 2010) and increasing interactions with peers present new opportunities for adolescents to practice their problem solving and interpersonal negotiation skills (Eisenberg et al. 2009), we hypothesized that empathy would generally increase across the transition to adolescence. Although there is no consensus on the role of gender in empathy development, based on theoretical predictions about gender socialization (Galambos et al. 2009; Rose and Rudolph 2006) and the limited research available (Mestre et al. 2009; Olweus and Endresen 1998), we expected that girls’ empathy would increase at a faster rate than boys’. When studying the effects of chronological age on youths’ socioemotional adjustment, an important confounding factor to consider is pubertal status: As reviewed by Hyde et al. (2008), observable physical changes of puberty may differentially influence girls’ and boys’ self-perceptions and body image and invite new kinds of social attention, such as peer aggression and harassment, which may in turn affect adolescents’ feelings and emotions. Therefore, we included pubertal status as a time-varying control in the analyses to account for the potential confounding of physical changes. Moreover, given some evidence suggesting that youths’ perspective-taking and emotion understanding vary as a function of socioeconomic factors (Bradley and Corwyn 2002), we controlled for parental education as a general index of family socioeconomic status.
With respect to our second goal, a MLM approach also allowed us to examine whether within-person changes in sibling relationship qualities were linked to within-person changes in youths’ empathy. By treating each sibling as her or his own control, a focus on within-person variation helps to eliminate stable, third variables as alternative explanations and provides for stronger inferences (Singer and Willet 2003). Further, a MLM approach made it possible to include longitudinal data collected from two siblings in the same model and to test statistically whether the association between sibling relationship qualities and empathy varied by birth order and chronological age. Based on previous findings on parent–child and sibling relationships (Eisenberg et al. 2009; Katz et al. 1992), we expected that the overall levels of sibling warmth and conflict would be associated positively and negatively with youths’ empathy, respectively. Moreover, because older siblings are often socioemotionally more advanced than their younger siblings, we expected to find a stronger socialization effect for second-borns than for firstborns. Finally, given that biological and social changes during adolescence may provide new opportunities for siblings to shape each other’s socioemotional development (Howe et al. 2001), we expected that the associations between sibling relationship qualities and youths’ empathy would become stronger over time.
Although the modeling of sibling relationship qualities as time-varying covariates partialed out the possible influence of stable individual differences, within-person associations still might be biased by other time-varying factors (Raudenbush and Bryk 2002). In order to isolate the unique influence of sibling relationship qualities, we included two additional time-varying controls: Parental responsiveness and marital love. A family systems perspective posits that parent–child, marital, and sibling relationships are interconnected (Minuchin 1985). At times when parents experience warmer relationships with their children than usual, for example, they also may be better able to promote children’s interpersonal skills (Eisenberg et al. 2009) and foster positive sibling relationships (Brody 1998) than usual. Similarly, the marital relationship may shape the general emotional climate of the family and has the potential to create a spurious within-person association between sibling relationships and children’s socioemotional adjustment (Grych and Fincham 1990). Therefore, we included parental responsiveness and marital love as time-varying controls in the analyses to rule out two important alternative explanations of our results.
Reflecting the ethnic background of families from the state where the study was conducted (85 % White; US Census Bureau 2000), the sample included almost exclusively European American families living in small cities, towns, and rural communities. Moreover, reflecting the educational (>80 % of adults completed high school) and financial (median income = $55,714 for married-couple families) backgrounds of the targeted population, in Year 1, the average education level was 14.57 years (SD = 2.15; range = 12–20) for mothers and 14.67 years (SD = 2.43; range = 10–20) for fathers (where a score of 12 signified a high school graduate), and the median family income was $55,000 (SD = 28,613; range = 21,000–207,000). The wide ranges of parental education and family income levels, however, indicated that the sample was diverse in socioeconomic status and primarily included working- and middle-class families.
Procedures and Measures
In each year of the study, a team of interviewers conducted structured home interviews with mothers, fathers, and the two eldest siblings. Parents were interviewed by the project investigators and graduate assistants, and children were interviewed by undergraduate students who had previously enrolled in a tailored research method course and received 40 h of training on youth development, survey designs, and interview techniques. Although the undergraduate interviewers had knowledge about the overall goal of the study, they were blind to the specific hypotheses concerning the inter-relationships among variables. After a general orientation and a review of human subject procedures, interviewers obtained informed consent and the family received a $100 honorarium for participating. Parents and youths then completed standardized questionnaires individually. For all measures, items were summed, such that a higher score indicated a higher level of the construct.
Empathy was assessed using 10 items from the Index of Empathy for Children and Adolescents (Bryant 1982). The original measure included 22 items. However, due to time constraints and concerns about participant fatigue, only 10 items that showed the highest item-total correlations in the pilot data were used in the study. In Years 1 through 3, youths rated their tendency to feel for other people and animals (e.g., “It makes me sad to see a girl who can’t find anyone to play with” and “I get upset when I see an animal being hurt”) on a dichotomous scale (0 = no; 1 = yes). Across the three time points, Cronbach’s alphas averaged .68 for firstborns and .60 for second-borns, comparable to those documented in earlier work that included participants of the same age (e.g., Cronbach’s alphas = .68 for 4th graders and .54 for 1st graders; Bryant 1982). Cross-time stability was evident, with stability coefficients (i.e., auto-correlations across time) averaging .65 for firstborns and .53 for second-borns.
Sibling Warmth and Conflict
Means (M) and standard deviations (SD) of empathy, sibling warmth, and sibling conflict
Parental responsiveness was assessed using the 5-item responsiveness subscale from the Parenting Style Inventory (Darling and Toyokawa 1997). In Years 1 through 3, youths separately rated their relationships with their mothers and fathers (e.g., “My mother/father spends time just talking to me”) on a 4-point scale (1 = really unlike; 4 = really like). The reliability of this measure has been established in other studies (e.g., Cronbach’s alpha = .74; Darling and Toyokawa 1997). Because mothers’ and fathers’ responsiveness were moderately to highly correlated (rs averaged .50 for firstborns and .67 for second-borns), ratings for mothers and fathers were combined to create a general index of parental responsiveness. Cronbach’s alphas averaged .76 for firstborns and .74 for second-borns, and stability coefficients averaged .38 for firstborns and .35 for second-borns.
Marital love was assessed using the 9-item marital love subscale from the Relationship Questionnaire (Braiker and Kelley 1979). In Years 1 through 3, parents rated their commitment and closeness to their partners (e.g., “How close do you feel toward your partner?”) on a 9-point scale (1 = not at all; 9 = very much). The reliability of this measure has been established in other studies (e.g., Cronbach’s alpha = .86; MacDermid et al. 1990). Because mothers’ and fathers’ reports of marital love were moderately correlated (rs averaged .49), their ratings were combined to create a general index of marital love. Cronbach’s alphas averaged .93, and stability coefficients averaged .79.
Pubertal status was assessed using the 5-item Pubertal Development Scale (Petersen et al. 1988). In Years 1 through 3, mothers rated the development of secondary sexual characteristics (e.g., growth spurt, skin changes, growth of body hair) of their firstborns on a 4-point scale (1 = not begun; 2 = barely started; 3 = definitely underway; 4 = seems complete). Because the onset of puberty occurs at an average age of 10–11 years for girls and 11–12 years for boys (Lee et al. 2001), mothers only rated the pubertal development of their second-borns in Year 3, when they were about 10 years. Given that data were not available for second-borns in Years 1 and 2 and that the pervasive gender difference in the incidence of depressive and anxiety disorders disfavoring females is not evident until mid-puberty (Angold et al. 1998), a dichotomous variable was created to indicate whether or not the siblings had transitioned through mid-puberty at each time point. Girls’ pubertal transition was indexed using the date of menarche (0 = before menstruation started; 1 = after menstruation started), whereas boys’ pubertal transition was indexed using the mid-point of the measure (0 = equal or below 12.5; 1 = above 12.5). In Years 1, 2, and 3, 5 % (n = 5), 21 % (n = 22), and 70 % (n = 72) of firstborn girls and 1 % (n = 1), 18 % (n = 18 %), and 27 % (n = 26) of firstborn boys had transitioned through mid-puberty, respectively. In Year 3, only 8 % (n = 8) of second-born girls and no second-born boys had experienced the transition, and thus second-borns’ scores were coded as 0 in Years 1 and 2. A more detailed description and other psychometric properties of this dichotomized measure are reported elsewhere (Whiteman et al. 2007).
Given the nested (i.e., youths from the same family were repeatedly assessed) and unbalanced (i.e., youths were assessed at different ages) nature of the data, we used MLM as the analytic strategy (Raudenbush & Bryk 2002). A series of three-level models (Level 1 = within-individual; Level 2 = between-individual; Level 3 = between-family) were estimated using the MIXED procedure in SAS Version 9.1. At Level 1, we included time-varying variables. We used youths’ ages as the metric of time, and included polynomial age terms (i.e., linear, quadratic) to describe the development of empathy over time. Youths’ ages were centered at age 11 (the approximate mean age across siblings and across time points). We also included the time-varying covariates (i.e., sibling warmth and conflict) and time-varying controls (i.e., pubertal transition, parental responsiveness, and marital love) at this level. To distinguish within- from between-person variations, each time-varying covariate was indicated by two variables: At Level 1, the covariate was indicated by a time-varying, group-mean centered (i.e., centered at each youth’s cross-time average) variable; at Level 2, the covariate was indicated by the grand-mean centered (i.e., centered at the sample mean), cross-time average. Whereas the Level 1 version of the covariate captured within-person variation and indicated how an individual deviated from her or his own cross-time average at each time point, the Level 2 version captured between-person variation and indicated how the individual’s cross-time average was different from the rest of the sample. Parental responsiveness and marital love were grand-mean centered at Level 1 without including the cross-time averages at Level 2, however, as we did not intend to distinguish the within- versus between-person effects of these control variables. Pubertal status already had been coded as 0 or 1 (whether or not youths had transitioned through mid-puberty), and thus no additional centering was needed. In addition to the cross-time averages of the covariates, at Level 2, we also included two other time-invariant variables that were different for the two siblings: Youths’ gender and birth order. The reference groups (i.e., coded as 0) for gender and birth order were girls (vs. boys) and firstborns (vs. second-borns), respectively. At Level 3, we included one time-invariant variable that was the same for the two siblings: Parental education (averaged across mothers and fathers) centered at 12 years (i.e., high school graduate).
We conducted the analyses in three steps: First, we tested a general change model (Model 1) to examine the overall pattern of change in empathy from middle childhood to early adolescence. To identify the best error structure, we compared a number of nested models that differed only in the random effect of interest and used deviance tests to determine the statistical significance of the random effects (Raudenbush and Bryk 2002). Because the difference between two nested models in their deviances (i.e., −2 log likelihood) was Chi-squared distributed, it indicated whether adding a particular set of random variance components constituted a significantly better error structure. Non-nested models with different random variance components, however, were compared based on Information Criteria, including AIC and BIC. Second, we tested a gender-specific change model (Model 2) to examine whether, controlling for youths’ birth order and pubertal status and parental education, the pattern of change in empathy differed for girls versus boys. Third, we tested a sibling relationship model (Model 3) to examine whether, controlling for parental responsiveness and marital love, within-person changes in sibling warmth and conflict were associated with within-person changes in youths’ empathy. We also included the interactions between sibling relationship qualities and youths’ birth order and age to test whether these associations were stronger for second-borns (vs. firstborns) and for older youths (vs. younger youths). We only included significant interactions in the final models, because retaining nonsignificant interactions tends to increase standard errors (Aiken and West 1991). The equations for Models 1, 2, and 3 can be found in the Sect. “Appendix”.
Coefficients (γ) and standard errors (SE) for multilevel models of empathy
Linear time × gender (γ110)
Birth order (γ020)
Pubertal transition (γ300)
Parental education (γ001)
BP sibling warmth (γ030)
WP sibling warmth (γ400)
Linear time × WP sibling warmth (γ500)
BP sibling conflict (γ040)
WP sibling conflict (γ600)
Parental responsiveness (γ700)
Marital love (γ800)
L3 intercept (τ000)
L2 intercept (τ00k)
L2 age (τ110)
L2 intercept-age covariance (τ01k = τ10k)
Model 3 revealed a significant between-person effect for sibling warmth, indicating that youths who reported closer relationships with their siblings, on average, were more empathic. A significant Linear Time × Within-Person Sibling Warmth interaction, together with follow-up tests, indicated that a significant within-person association between sibling warmth and youths’ empathy emerged at age 11, γ = 0.03, SE = 0.01, p < .05, and became stronger over time, increasing by 0.02 units each year. In other words, starting around age 11, at times when youths reported more sibling warmth than usual (i.e., compared to their own cross-time average), they also reported more empathy than usual. Model 3 also revealed a significant within-person effect for sibling conflict, indicating that, at times when youths reported more sibling conflict than usual, they also reported less empathy than usual. The interactions between sibling relationship qualities and birth order and other interactions involving youths’ age were not significant, and thus were dropped from the final model. Exploratory analyses testing for interactions between sibling relationship qualities and youths’ gender revealed no differences in the associations between sibling warmth and conflict and youths’ empathy for girls versus boys.
Although recent research has highlighted socioemotional competencies as key components of youths’ positive development (Spinrad and Eisenberg 2009), most studies on empathy—an important precursor of prosocial behaviors (Eisenberg et al. 2009; Hoffman 2001)—are cross-sectional, and research on the role of the family has focused almost exclusively on parental socialization. Using a MLM strategy to take full advantage of 3-wave, longitudinal data collected from two siblings from each of about 200 families, this study expanded upon previous work by examining the developmental course of empathy from age 7 to 14 and the within-person associations between sibling warmth and conflict and youths’ empathy. Our results indicated that, as predicted by gender intensification theory (Galambos et al. 2009; Rose and Rudolph 2006), the patterns of change in empathy were different for girls and boys, resulting in a widening gender gap across the transition to adolescence. Moreover, consistent with the idea that sibling interactions afford unique social experiences and learning opportunities (Dunn 2002; Katz et al. 1992), even controlling for parental responsiveness and marital love, sibling warmth was associated positively and sibling conflict was associated negatively with both firstborns’ and second-borns’ empathy. Interestingly, the within-person association between sibling warmth and youths’ empathy became stronger with age, suggesting that siblings may play an increasingly important role in shaping each other’s socioemotional development during adolescence.
Empathy Development in Adolescence
Our study showed that girls’ empathy increased across the transition to adolescence and then leveled off at about age 12. This finding is in line with research indicating that brain regions implicated in social cognitive processing continue to develop into adolescence (Decety 2010) and that increasing involvement with peers presents new opportunities and motivation for adolescents to practice their problem solving and interpersonal negotiation skills (Eisenberg et al. 2009). In contrast, for boys, the quadratic effect for time was significant but the linear effect was not, suggesting that boys’ empathy increased temporarily at the transition to adolescence but then declined. Nevertheless, the magnitude of this increase, as shown in Fig. 1, was so modest that it was probably of little practical significance (Kirk 1996). The differential development of girls and boys resulted in an increasing gender difference in empathy over time, providing support to a theory that gender socialization pressure intensifies during adolescence (Galambos et al. 2009). It is noteworthy that youths’ pubertal status and parental education were controlled in the analyses, and thus the observed patterns of change were unlikely to be due to gender differences in self- or others’ reactions to observable physical changes (Hyde et al. 2008) or to social class differences in youths’ perspective-taking and emotion understanding (Bradley and Corwyn 2002).
Although gender differences in certain cognitive and socioemotional characteristics have been found to have a neural and hormonal basis (Galambos et al. 2009), the differential trajectories for girls and boys documented here may reflect differences in empathic tendencies rather than capacities. A person who has acquired the abilities to infer internal states and take another’s perspective may not use these abilities in everyday life. Empathic responding often involves apprehending suffering, sorrow, and other negative emotions experienced by others (Rosenblum and Lewis 2008). Individuals who have poor self-regulation of emotions, for example, may be overwhelmed by high levels of negative arousal, which may prompt them to preempt an empathic response, flee an emotional situation, or prematurely terminate an empathic connection. Gender differences in tolerance of negative affect may underlie the observed differences in empathic tendencies between girls and boys. Gender socialization, which encourages females to be expressive and nurturant and males to be analytical and instrumental (Galambos et al. 2009), also may contribute to this difference. Of particular interest here is the observation that boys, but not girls, become increasingly reluctant to express negative affect and tender feelings over time (Eisenberg and Fabes 1990). Recent research has demonstrated that male restrictive emotionality is associated with a wide range of psychological disorders and behavioral problems, including depression, substance use, and antisocial behaviors (O’Neil 2008). Teaching children and adolescents, particularly boys, to understand others’ emotions and to express their own feelings in appropriate ways may be an important component in promoting youths’ social competence and prosocial behaviors (Hoffman 2001; Spinrad and Eisenberg 2009).
Only a handful of studies are available on longitudinal changes in empathy, and they mainly have been conducted in mid- and late adolescence. Their results are also mixed, with Davis and Franzoi (1991) showing that empathy increased from age 15 to 18, Eisenberg et al. (2005) showing that perspective taking increased from age 15 to 26 but that sympathy did not change over time, and Mestre et al. (2009) showing that girls’ empathy increased at a faster rate than did boy’s from age 13 to 14. Due to differences in sample sizes, nationality, and data analytic strategies (especially how developmental time was operationalized), comparisons between these and our study are difficult. One potential explanation for the discrepancy in the findings, however, pertains to the use of different measures. The use of Bryant’s (1982) Index of Empathy for Children and Adolescents, which focuses on youths’ spontaneous empathic responses to others’ feelings, seems to reveal less drastic changes beginning in early adolescence (our study; Mestre et al. 2009). On the other hand, the use of Davis’s (1983) Interpersonal Reactivity Index, which includes additional items on strategic use of empathic skills (e.g., “I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision,” “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective”), appears to capture a continuous increase in empathy through mid- and late adolescence (Davis and Franzoi 1991; Eisenberg et al. 2005; Mestre et al. 2009). As pointed out by a number of researchers, the phenomenal experience of empathy is highly complex, involving a large array of cortical and subcortical brain structures (Decety 2010) and emerging through repeated interactions across different social situations (Eisenberg et al. 2009). Deliberate, goal-directed use of such complex, emotional experience may require additional cognitive efforts and special interpersonal skill practice (Izard 2009). Long-term longitudinal studies of adolescents that distinguish between spontaneous and strategic empathy have the potential to reconcile these findings.
Sibling Relationships and Empathy
Our findings indicated that youths who had closer relationships with their siblings, on average, reported higher levels of empathy. The unique contribution of our study, however, lies in the discovery that, even controlling for time-varying parental responsiveness and marital love, at times when youths reported more warmth and less conflict with their siblings than usual, they also reported more empathy than usual. Our use of time-varying covariates and inclusion of time-varying controls helped to rule out multiple alternative explanations, including stable individual differences (Singer and Willet 2003), parental socialization (Brody 1998; Eisenberg et al. 2009), and marital dynamics (Brody 1998; Grych and Fincham 1990), and thus provided for stronger inferences about the links between sibling relationship qualities and youths’ empathy. Ample evidence suggests that parents play a major role in enhancing children’s awareness and understanding of others’ feelings (Eisenberg et al. 2009; Hoffman 2001). Our study added to this work by showing that, although family subsystems are inter-related (Minuchin 1985), siblings also may serve as significant agents of socialization and contribute to each other’s socioemotional development in unique ways. Our focus on concurrent, within-person associations, however, means that our results cannot determine whether sibling relationships foster empathy development and/or whether youths’ empathy promotes positive sibling interactions. Future researchers should test directions of effect using lagged, time-varying predictors (e.g., lagging the time-varying covariates by 1 year) that can shed light on both temporal precedence and within-person associations (Singer and Willet 2003).
Despite their correlation, sibling warmth and conflict each explained unique variance in youths’ empathy, lending support to a multidimensional approach to conceptualizing sibling relationships (Brody 1998; East 2009) and reflecting the observation that intensely positive and negative exchanges can coexist within the same sibling dyad (Dunn 2002). In contrast to other findings that sibling conflict may provide opportunities for youths to develop perspective-taking and persuasive negotiation skills (Katz et al. 1992), however, our results suggested that sibling conflict was linked negatively to youths’ empathy (Howe et al. 2001). This is not completely surprising, given that our measure was designed to assess how often sibling conflict occurred across a variety of domains, but not how the conflict was usually handled, which has been shown to be crucial in determining whether or not conflict will benefit those who are involved (Ross et al. 2006). Studies that pay close attention to interaction details, such as siblings’ use of conflict resolution skills and negotiation strategies, would provide further insights into the potentially beneficial role of sibling conflict in adolescent socioemotional development.
In contrast to Tucker et al.’s (1999) findings that sibling warmth was associated with second-borns’, but not firstborns’, empathy, our results indicated that the sibling relationship effects did not vary by birth order. In childhood, different-age siblings may differ substantially in socioemotional competencies. Five-year-old children who begin to understand that individuals’ beliefs and desires may affect their feelings about a given event may seem to be more empathic than their 2-year-old siblings, who have just acquired the concept of self-other categorization (Decety 2010). Thus, it is not surprising that prior early childhood research has tended to study older siblings’ influences on their younger siblings (Azmitia and Hesser 1993; Dunn et al. 1991). The relative developmental difference between siblings diminishes rapidly, however, from middle childhood to early adolescence (East 2009), when the same 3-year gap between siblings’ ages may tell us less about how different they are in socioemotional competencies. To the extent that adolescent-aged siblings are more developmentally similar, they may have more opportunities to engage in reciprocal interactions, which in turn promote the perspective taking and interpersonal skills that underlie empathy (Dunn 1998; Harris 1994). On a methodological level, our MLM framework also allowed us to include multiple waves of longitudinal data from each sibling in the same model, and thus maximized the statistical power (Singer and Willet 2003) of detecting the association between sibling relationship qualities and empathy for both firstborns and second-borns.
Perhaps even more importantly, our findings indicated that the within-person association between sibling warmth and youths’ empathy emerged at the transition to adolescence and became stronger over time. Although tremendous advances have been made in understanding the nature and implications of sibling relationships (Brody 1998; East 2009), sibling influences rarely have been examined in a developmental framework (Dunn 2005). It remains relatively unknown, for example, whether the impact of siblings on youths’ socioemotional development changes over time. Our study addressed this issue by directly testing the interaction effects between sibling relationship qualities and youths’ ages on their empathy during the transition to adolescence, when youths become more involved in the world beyond their families. Because little prior research is available for comparison, our results should be treated as a first step in understanding this process. At an age when youths become increasingly motivated to gain independence from their parents and to forge deep friendships with their peers, the more reciprocal nature of the sibling relationship may make it an attractive and effective family context in which youths learn and practice social competencies (Howe et al. 2001). The mutual influences of siblings in shaping each other’s socioemotional development, especially during adolescence, merit further investigations. Although many other social (e.g., peer influences) and contextual (e.g., school experiences and community involvement) factors also may play a role (Eisenberg et al. 2009), from the perspectives of parents and practitioners, strategies that promote sibling warmth and develop conflict resolution skills may represent an important focus of education and programing directed at advancing youths’ socioemotional competencies (Feinberg et al. 2012).
Limitations and Conclusions
Our study had several limitations. First, although our sample reflected some population characteristics of married-couple families from the state where the study was conducted (US Census Bureau 2000), it was ethnically homogeneous and not representative of the diversity of youths in the US. Given the notable ethnic differences in family socialization, emotion display rules, and other socioemotional characteristics (Chen and French 2008), our findings need to be replicated in more diverse samples. Second, our measure of empathy was unidimensional and only able to capture the general level of youths’ empathy. Increasing evidence suggests that empathy involves multiple cognitive and socioemotional components, each of which may have its own distinct developmental trajectory (Decety 2010). Moreover, as described above, spontaneous and strategic empathy may have different patterns of change. Future research should study different forms and aspects of empathy separately and explore how each develops over time. A related issue is that we used a self-report measure of empathy, and thus our results may be influenced by youths’ self-presentation biases. The incorporation of nonverbal measures, such as facial and other physiological responses as well as behavioral observations, would be useful for validating our findings on empathy development (Eisenberg and Fabes 1990). Third, although our use of time-varying covariates and time-varying controls helped to account for alternative explanations, definitive conclusions about causal relationships cannot be made based on correlational data. Intervention and prevention studies that use experimental designs, with random assignment to intervention versus control conditions, to introduce changes to sibling interactions and measure subsequent differences in youths’ socioemotional outcomes (Feinberg et al. 2012) are required to disentangle the causal paths underlying the associations documented here.
Adolescence is a period when youths experience multiple biological and social changes and become more involved in relationships with peers and others outside the family (Decety 2010; Eisenberg et al. 2009). With a focus on both longitudinal and within-person changes, our study contributed to the understanding of this important period by demonstrating that girls and boys exhibited differential development in empathy (Galambos et al. 2009; Rose and Rudolph 2006) and that siblings continued to play a unique role in shaping each other’s socioemotional characteristics (Dunn 1998; East 2009) across the transition to adolescence. Our approach to directly testing the interaction effects between sibling relationship qualities and chronological age on empathy also provided new insights about the potentially increasing significance of sibling relationships over time (Dunn 2005). On an applied level, our findings highlighted the importance of teaching youths, especially boys, to understand others’ and their own emotions (O’Neil 2008) and underscored the potential of targeting siblings in efforts to promote youths’ socioemotional competencies (Feinberg et al. 2012).
The authors are grateful to the graduate and undergraduate assistants, staff, and faculty collaborators for their help in conducting this study, as well as the participating families for their time and insights about youth development. This work was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (R01-HD32336) to Ann C. Crouter and Susan M. McHale, Co-Principal Investigators.