I grew up with a little brother, so I know how annoying younger siblings can be. I try to be sympathetic toward my older girl when she’s at her wit’s end with her little sissy, because I get it! But aside from the life-long bond they will (eventually) form, it turns out that annoying little brothers and sisters can be beneficial to older kids, too. A new study suggests that younger siblings teach empathy to their older siblings. So while they may get on their nerves, they’re helping them develop into better human beings.

The study published in Child Development says that younger siblings teach empathy to their older brothers and sisters.

Prior studies have shown that older siblings have influence over several aspects of their younger siblings development. The influence of younger siblings on big brothers and sisters has been more difficult to assess, until now. Marc Jambon is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto. He and his colleagues recruited a group of 452 Canadian sibling pairs for the study. The pairs were all between the ages of 18 months and four years. At the beginning of the study, researchers monitored the kids’ baseline empathy levels at home. They pretended to break a beloved item or hurt themselves, then recorded the children’s reactions.  A year and a half later, they returned to the homes to see how living with a younger sibling had affected the kids.

During the return visit, researchers noted small but significant increases in empathy in older siblings.

Says Jambon, “These findings stayed the same, even after taking into consideration each child’s earlier levels of empathy and factors that siblings in a family share – such as parenting practices or the family’s socioeconomic status – that could explain similarities between them.” One interesting caveat: older sisters didn’t appear to develop higher levels of empathy after living for a year and a half with a younger brother. The research team isn’t sure why this particular sibling dynamic is different, and hope further research will shed some light on the subject.

(Image: iStock / Nuli_k)