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Vol.22, No.7, July 2006 - Sibling relationships in cultural context

There is ever increasing cultural diversity among families participating in children's healthcare and educational service settings within the United States (US Census Bureau, 2000). Calls for culturally competent family-based care typically focus on the needs of children and their parents. Siblings are commonly ignored or, at best, may be tolerated in many service settings.

The purpose of this article is to sensitize clinicians and researchers to the many cultural variations in sibling relationships as these have implications for healthcare professionals, policy makers, and researchers.

Most children are raised with brothers and sisters and spend more time with their siblings than they do with their parents (Lamb & Sutton-Smith, 1982). Young children around the world are exposed to their siblings in the contexts of care-taking and social interaction. Similar to parent-child interactions, siblings teach and model behavior and function as "culture brokers" in the transmission of cultural values across generations (Lewis, Freeman, Kyriakidou, Maridaki-Kassotaki, & Berridge, 1996; Maynard, 2002). Despite these universal trends, cultures show interesting variations in sibling relationships.

Definition of a sibling
There are cultural differences in the definition of siblings, which impact the size of a child's social network and expectations of loyalty and obligations (Cicirelli, 1994).

In industrialized Western societies such as the U.S., siblings are identified primarily by biological criteria, with a focus on the nuclear family. Some societies use broader, non-genealogical criteria to define siblings (e.g., all children in the same generation are siblings), while other societies use specific definitions to identify siblings by gender and birth order. In Asian cultures, specific terminology to recognize older and younger male and female siblings is representative of the value of hierarchy in this culture, with greater respect commanded by older siblings and greater responsibility placed upon them (Huang, 1994).

Sibling relationships
The importance given to the sibling relationship also differs across cultures, according to general cultural norms and values regarding how individuals relate to each other. Collective cultures differ from individualistic societies in their focus on the needs of the groups (e.g., family, community) in contrast to its individual members (Triandis, 1994). Family-oriented collective cultures show high rates of sibling contact and involvement. For example, Whiting & Edwards (1988) found that in Latino cultures, children 6-10 years old spend approximately 50% of their time with their siblings and families as compared to American children who spend only 3% of their time with relatives.

Furthermore, in cultures that emphasize familism (e.g., Indonesia, Costa Rica), children and adolescents report higher levels of companionship, intimacy, and satisfaction with their siblings than with their friends, whereas youth in the U.S. report greater levels of companionship from their friends (DeRosier & Kupersmidt, 1991; French, Rianasari, Pidada, Nelwan, & Buhrmester, 2001). In a recent descriptive study of adolescent sibling relationships in Mexican-American families (Updegraff, McHale, Whiteman, Thayer, & Delgado, 2005), Mexican-American siblings spent more time in shared activities with each other as compared with time they spent with parents and other relatives, and considerably more time than what has been reported for European American siblings.

Familistic or collectivistic cultures promote sibling interdependence ? sibling caretaking defines daily life, often starting when the sibling caretaker is as young as 3 years (Whiting & Edwards, 1988; Zukow-Goldring, 2002). In many South Asian cultures, siblings share essential survival and reproductive obligations throughout their lifespan, such as management and distribution of family inheritance, arrangement of marriage, and other life passage ceremonies (Nuckolls, 1993). In individualistic cultures, greater value is placed on individual achievements. Sibling caretaking is not routinely expected; siblings rarely live together after adolescence and are not widely expected to pursue lifelong obligations (Gallimore, Weisner, Kaufman, & Bernheimer, 1989; Georgas et al., 1997).

Sibling relationships in immigrant families
We are interested in immigrant families because they are on an accelerated course of negotiation between their culture of origin and the U.S. educational and healthcare systems, as they address their children's needs. For immigrant families, factors such as reasons for immigration, language fluency, and length of stay in the U.S. may influence sibling relationships (Foster, 2001).

Children in immigrant families have a higher level of family obligations than U.S.-born children (Cook, Cook, Tran, & Tu, 1997; Fuligni, Yip & Tseng, 2002; Tseng, 2004). Thus, older siblings may be expected to and may themselves expect to perform more childcare and household tasks. This is in contrast to mainstream U.S. culture where greater sibling caretaking is generally perceived as interfering with the healthy siblings' socialization (Weisner, 1993). This may introduce acculturative stress, as children from immigrant families are exposed to the values and behavior patterns of their peers in the U.S. while expected to maintain more traditional family duties at home.

Social support
When families immigrate to the U.S., they leave behind social and familial networks. Without an established network of social support, the siblings' companionship and roles in helping their families manage all children's needs might assume greater significance. For example, siblings might be expected to spend more time caring for and supervising their brothers or sisters. In addition, as immigrant families attempt to manage encounters with the English-speaking world to obtain care for their children, older siblings may be expected to serve as interpreters for their parents (Zhou, 1997).

Implications
The sibling experiences of children in immigrant families are likely to be qualitatively distinct from nonimmigrant families in the mainstream U.S. culture. Professionals working with children in immigrant families need to gain an understanding of how the sibling relationship is defined and valued in the culture of origin. Some questions that can guide clinical work, policy, and research on this population include: How do cultural beliefs affect the family's approach to childcare? How has acculturation and its related stress impacted the family, sibling relationships, and sibling psychological adjustment? What are the siblings' roles and expectations in the care and treatment of the child?

In order to provide "family friendly" services, agencies need to examine how they view and accommodate diverse cultural definitions of families so that siblings may be included in the care of children in a manner that is appropriate to their culture and so that clinical space can accommodate the presence of siblings and other caretakers of the child in treatment.

If we are to become truly family-focused and culturally competent in our care of children, then we must bring thoughtful and meaningful professional attention to the experiences and needs from diverse cultural backgrounds and their siblings.

This article is an excerpt from a longer paper.

Nalini Tarakeshwar is with the Yale University School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry. Debra Lobato and Wendy Plante are with Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center & Brown Medical School, Department of Psychiatry. Barbara Kao is with Brown Medical School, Department of Pediatrics.


The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, July 2006
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