Sibling Relationships

What happens at the family reunions of adult siblings is often a mirror of their earlier relationships in childhood. It is a sad reality that family reunions are rarely harmonious and the discussion that has been on the surface or lurking behind a façade of jollity can emerge quite quickly during the get-together. There are brothers and sisters, too, who haven’t spoken to each other for years due to differences of opinion on what family life had been all about. What is often missed in adult sibling conflict is that each sibling had a different mother and a different father, so when adulthood stories are being told, there will be radical differences in the experiences related! When two individuals interact – each parent and each child, the relationship is unique. Acknowledgement of this amazing reality could ease much of the conflict between adult siblings. The other reality that could dispel conflict is that each child in a family finds a unique way to express his or her individuality, In other words, children go opposite to each other in order to not be lost in the sameness that can be demanded in some families and classrooms.  Each child develops personal qualities and a repertoire of interests and behaviours that are very different to a brother or sister. As a twin, my brother and I were described as ‘chalk and cheese’ – I never did figure out who was the ‘chalk’ and who was the ‘cheese!’ If he was the rogue, I was the serious child; if he was street-wise, I was street naive; if I was good at looking after family members’ needs, he was good at getting others to look after his; if I was top of the class in school, he was bottom; if he was a dare-devil, I was cautious. One other reality that needs to be accepted is that no two families are alike

Of course, parents also tend to be opposite in many ways to each other and the child who fits in with the parent’s ways is more likely to be the favourite compared to the child who challenges a parent’s ways of relating to self and others.

There have been theories that birth order affects a child’s development, but there is no hard and fast rule here. Certainly, it was and is often the case that the eldest child is loaded with more responsibilities than the younger siblings and this can lead to displacement of resentment towards his parents for the unfairness of always having to be the ‘responsible one’ onto the younger siblings. Such displacement can lead to a controlling and aggressive type of relationship with her younger siblings which often persists into adulthood. Not surprisingly, the younger children will in turn – known as circular causality - resent being ‘bossed’ by their older siblings and this, too, can persist into adulthood. Often, these disharmonious sibling relationships raise their distressing heads at critical family times – births, weddings, deaths, wills and when a parent becomes unwell.

Another common belief about family life is the phenomenon of being the middle or ‘sandwiched’ child. The theory is that this child has two battlefronts: one, with the older and two, with the younger child. It is frequently – but not always – the case that this child has to fight to gain attention and affection. In truth, it comes down to the nature of the relationship each parent has with the middle child; it is not his position in the family that determines the nature of the relationship. What is true is that he or she needs to establish his individuality in ways that are entirely different to the older and younger siblings. Because being the ‘rebel’ child is a risky business, and unlikely to have been adopted by the older and young sibling, the middle child may well adopt this persona.

The gender of children can affect the relationship between them, particularly in families where the ‘girls’ are expected to look after the ‘boys’ and do most of the domestic chores. Such an unfair sharing out of family responsibilities can lead to a polarisation between girls and boys in a family which, again, can persist into adulthood.

Another popular term to describe sibling relationships is ‘sibling rivalry’ – where children rival each other for their parents’ affection and attention. Again, this will only arise when each parent fails to establish a unique relationship with each child or when a parent makes it obvious that she has a favourite. Later on, in adulthood – particularly at the reading of the last will and testament of a parent – the hurts experienced in childhood and the unresolved need to be loved for self – will rise up and cause considerable dissension among adult siblings.

Resolution of sibling conflict is likely when each one party to the conflict reflects and moves towards self-reliance and away from enmeshment with siblings and parents. From that solid interiority, compassion takes the place of conflict.  Of course, there are families where children become the best of friends and this perpetuates into adulthood. However, there is a lot of truth in the saying ‘friendship is God’s apology for family.’

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books on practical psychology including Leaving The Nest.