The complex relationships we have with our siblings as children can shape our adult lives.
No matter whether you’re the eldest of eight, the youngest of four girls, or part of a ‘pigeon
pair’, what you learn from your siblings growing up – good and bad – and its impact on you
have a direct influence on the adult you become. And although we move on to create our
own immediate families, the importance of keeping our sibling ties strong and healthy
increases, rather than diminishes, as we age.
Here, experts explain how our early relationships with brothers and sisters shape us, and
offer advice on keeping the bond strong as adults.
The significance of siblings
For the majority of us, no relationship will last longer than the one we’ll have with our
siblings. And, chances are, no other relationship will be as complicated or contradictory.
From our earliest time together with siblings, they can get under our skin or show us up like
no-one else can. They can be our toughest critics, or the people we envy most. On the other
hand, our siblings can understand us and love us with a depth and intensity no friend can
rival. They can be our fiercest defenders and most loyal allies. “Siblings are our blood-link
tribe,” says psychologist Meredith Fuller, “and they’ll always be special because they share
our long-term memory from childhood onwards.”
“Our siblings are our partners as we shape who we are,” says social psychologist Dr Fiona
Kate Barlow, a lecturer at the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology. “Together
we share a lot of our early formative experiences. We also share 50 percent of our genetic
material, so our siblings are, literally, a part of us. They’re made up of the same stuff.”
How siblings socialize us
What we also share growing up is a copious amount of time trapped together, along with belongings, bedrooms and our parents’ attention. How does this affect us? “When you have
siblings, what you also get is a crash course in negotiation,” says Barlow. “And, unlike with a
friend, you don’t have the option of walking away when things don’t go your way. It’s a
Fuller says that all those arguments – fighting over the remote control, fighting for
recognition, fighting to be the first to do things, or to do things differently – and the inevitable
process of making up while recovering from the injustice, the disappointment and the
intensity of the battle can hurt, but it’s also good practice for later life.
“All these types of interactions with your siblings give you mental maps about how to cope
with relationships: conflict, confluence and mediation in the real world,” she says.
The dreaded sibling rivalry we have with our siblings also shape our lives
“Our direct competition when we’re young is usually our siblings,” says Barlow, and it can
create an antagonism between brothers and sisters that can linger into adulthood. It’s not
uncommon for siblings, especially younger ones, to go out of their way to set themselves
apart – psychologists call it de-identification’. Therefore, a sporty sister can drive another sister into exploring her artistic side, while an industrious boy might find himself coupled with a party animal brother.
Then there’s the negative impact of birth order. For example, the eldest child, who feels
responsible for their younger siblings, yet resents it; the youngest child who feels continually
disparaged by their older siblings; or the middle child who feels overlooked and undervalued
by everyone in their family. As a result, siblings can be typecast in different roles, like the
‘Smart’ one, the ‘good’ one, the ‘ditzy’ one, the ‘diligent one, the ‘sensitive one, the
‘irresponsible’ one. While, as adults, some siblings are happy to keep playing along (or play
it up when it suits them), it can be problematic when one feels they’re being held hostage to
this label, or still being treated differently because of it.
The important role siblings has to shape our life as we age
A rocky or indifferent relationship with siblings during adolescence doesn’t necessarily meanmore of the same in adulthood. In fact, siblings can come into their own as they age, mainly because they have that shared history to draw upon.
“In our early 20s, we’re busy finding a partner, along with a peer group that fits us, so ou
relationship with our siblings can hit the backburner,” explains Barlow. “But as we start to
form families of our own, siblings can often come back to the forefront and form an important
part of our social circle.”
Sisters, she suggests, are particularly crucial. “In terms of sibling relationships, some of our
most important relationships are with our sisters,” she says. Researchers from Brigham
Young University in the US found that having a sister protected adolescents from feeling
‘lonely, unloved, guilty, self-conscious and fearful. “In adulthood, women are often the social
glue that bonds families and men together,” says Barlow. So it’s not surprising that a good
relationship with a sister, for both men and women, is linked to emotional wellbeing.”
A family crisis, such as a divorce, illness or the passing of a parent can often result in
siblings rethinking their whole relationship. “The grief of losing a parent, for instance, is
shared with a sibling who understands in a way that your friends can’t,” says Fuller. At trying times, you can get a lot closer to your siblings, particularly if you haven’t been close for a while.”
Forgive youthful transgressions. “If you have a memory of a sibling hurting you or not
treating you the way you’d hoped, remind yourself that just like you were a kid or a young
adult at that time, so were they, finding out who they were and how best to behave,” says
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