Social scientists and popular culture give a lot of attention to parent-child and marital relationships, but it is sibling bonds that actually last the longest — longer than our connections with parents, spouses, and friends — while shaping our identity in powerful ways. Siblings are our history-keepers; they know the entire arc of our life story from childhood to adulthood. They bear witness to our achievements and milestones and share similar family experiences. These relationships are precious sources of love, understanding, and wisdom. Here's how they can go wrong, but also how to maintain and nurture them.
Factors Affecting Sibling Bonds
Sister-sister bonds are likely to be the closest, followed by brother-sister relationships, with brother-brother pairs the most likely to be competitive, research shows. When parents have children spaced closely together, that may have benefits for siblings later in life — but in childhood it tends to produce increased sibling rivalry. Another factor affecting sibling bonds can be if one child has a serious illness or disability or is gifted in some way, drawing more parental resources and attention. Other siblings may be enlisted to help, deferring their own needs, or they may feel overshadowed.
There has also been speculation about birth order, such as whether it's better to be the first-born (getting undivided parental attention and winding up smarter, more successful in work, and healthier) or the youngest (benefiting from the attention of both parents and siblings, and getting more freedoms than older siblings), and whether middle kids are at a disadvantage. But recent research shows the perceived benefits of being the first-born effectively meaningless and no correlation at all between birth order and personality.
Birth order may have more relevance in cultures with more sex role expectations, such as when oldest sons have privileges that include greater educational opportunities and authority over younger siblings, while oldest daughters may have role expectations as maternal surrogates in raising younger siblings.
Destructive Family Dynamics
Negative family dynamics such as bullying, sexual abuse, and problematic parental interactions is a powerful determinant of sibling relation in childhood and adulthood.
A child bullied by a sibling feels persecuted and intimidated by them, and unprotected and devalued by the parents. In one study of estranged siblings, emotional abuse accounted for 39 percent of broken sibling bonds.
Estimates of sibling sexual abuse vary widely, affecting from 2.3 percent of children to 16 percent. Usually, it involves sexual abuse by an older brother of a younger sibling, particularly a sister. Sibling sexual abuse tends to occur in families with blurred interpersonal boundaries, significant denial and secrecy, and disengaged or preoccupied parents.
Sibling bonds are closest when treatment by parents is seen as loving, responsive, fair, and consistent. Parents can damage sibling bonds by assigning roles or labels, comparing siblings, offering love as a kind of payment, and treatment siblings differently.
- Being defined as the "smart one," the "jock," or the "pretty one," for instance, creates potentially hurtful lasting characterizations among siblings by suggesting that only one family member carries that distinction and highlighting that attribute as the fixed and most important features of that child.
- A child hearing comments such as "Your sister knows how to tie her shoes. Why can't you?" or "Look at your brother. He knows how to handle money," will likely feel shame, resentment, and envy, and the one being praised may gloat, or feel guilt or anxiety.
- When siblings perceive that love and approval is contingent on meeting parental expectations, it generates competition for parent's approval, resulting in winners and losers — and insecurity and uncertainty.
- When siblings perceive different treatment from parents, it can hurt their bonds with siblings even if they're the ones benefiting ... and even if parents don't think they're doing it. In one study of estranged siblings, favoritism accounted for at least 34 percent of estrangements.
Adulthood Challenges and Opportunities
Sibling relationship dynamics shift with milestones such as when the first kid leaves for college, the military, or marriage. For the person leaving, contact with siblings becomes more voluntary than obligatory and rivalries may resolve as they focus on bonds outside the family. For those left behind, it can feel as though they have been discarded and replaced by dating partners, spouses, and work or school activities. Once all siblings have their own adult lives, they need to figure out their participation in family traditions, events, and holidays. Tensions can arise around differing expectations for their redefined roles.
Bringing partners and spouses into the family might be seen as disruptions, or the new family members might help fix long-standing family stalemates and bridge divides. Success in new relationships and work can make unresolved rivalries reemerge, or can bring increased support, cooperation, and cohesion among siblings invested in each other's success and happiness.
The need to care for aging parents and to negotiate parents' legal, financial, and health issues can offer opportunities for increased conflict or cooperation. Resolving parental estate and property concerns requires healthy communication and collaborative efforts, but may also reactivate old wounds. And in late life, increasing awareness of health challenges and mortality can prompt siblings to provide emotional and physical support to family members, resolve outstanding disputes, and appreciate their shared history.
If your sibling experience falls under the "it's complicated" umbrella or includes actual estrangement, it's worth examining your family experience to understand the benefits and consequences of your history, as well as to define new expectations for your relationships.
Benefits and consequences.
Having a long view of yourself as well as other family members may help you appreciate how things worked out and how you've been affected. For example:
- You may have appreciated extra attention, resources, and support from your parents, but it may now be damaging your relationships at work and home. You may not perceive a need to recognize or accommodate others or be a team player. It may be confusing when praise is not as forthcoming in other social or work contexts. You may also hold back from acting how you like or doing what you want.
- If you felt undervalued by your parents, you may have struggled to identify your strengths and feel worthy. This may have brought depression, but also strong motivation to work hard and earn recognition outside the family — from teachers, coaches, employers, and friends. Your adult challenge may be to appreciate that you are loved for who you are, not what you do.
- If you felt perceived as the black sheep, rebel, or family scapegoat, you may have acted out and struggled with authority. It may have helped you feel empathy for those who are also misperceived or non-conforming. As an adult, you may gravitate to creative fields such as journalism or photography, or to social work. You may feel like an observer and wind up being the "truth-teller" in the family.
Defining new roles and expectations.
These insights into yourself and others afford opportunities to redefine your goals as an adult in the family, and to model different relationship patterns with siblings. If you see your sibling as simply as another person, not as a competitor or trouble-maker, you can relate to them more openly and generously.
- Ask open-ended questions about siblings' well-being and interests, and really listen.
- Look for ways to support and validate them when they are helpful or thoughtful.
- In ambiguous situations, assume they have good intentions and wait for clarification about motives or actions.
- Provide clear information about your goals and intentions, which will minimize misunderstandings.
- Be consistent in your signals. Make sure your intentions and words line up with your actions.
Addressing ongoing sibling rivalry.
The simplest way to end sibling rivalry is to stop playing. Sooner or later, siblings will recognize that the game is over.
- Don't take the bait when a sibling tries to goad you into some competitive process.
- Statements such as, "There are many right answers," "I can see it a variety of ways," and "We can all win here" suggest that you are looking beyond win-lose scenarios and refusing to feel inadequate.
- Make a peace offering with reasonable concessions or thoughtful apologies.
Carol Povenmire, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist with a practice in Pasadena, California.