Solving adult sibling rivalry

Dr Alice Boyes shares her expert advice on dealing with family relations

Words Dr Alice Boyes. Illustration Janelle Barone, Makers MGMT

Sibling relationships are special because, in most cases, your siblings will be part of your life for longer than anyone else. Longer even than your parents or children. 

But we don’t always get on with our siblings. Sibling rivalry typically has childhood origins. What triggers it is frequently no particular person’s fault. Contributing factors can be as innocuous as an older child babysitting for their younger sibling, setting up a dynamic where the younger person resents their brother or sister being in charge and having some power over them.   Another scenario is where a sick child requires their parents’ energy, and other children in the family end up feeling ignored. 

Younger siblings, in particular, often have a sense that their accomplishments and milestones are being compared to their older brethren. And older children can envy the growing up experiences their younger brothers or sisters have, for example, if parents have more money or time available for younger children.

Here are some practical tips for improving sibling relationships. 

  • Don’t blame your sibling for a parent’s behaviour.
  • It’s not your sibling’s fault if your parent favours your sibling or compares the two of you. It’s mostly a parent’s responsibility to manage the parent-child relationship. Sometimes parents feel naturally closer to a child they have more in common with, and don’t do a very good job of handling this. There are rare cases where it’s reasonable for a sibling to try to correct a parent’s behavior when it’s clearly inequitable e.g., if a parent leaves all their assets to the male child in a family and nothing to their daughters. These situations are very complex. For the most part though, it’s not your sibling’s fault if your parent behaves more warmly towards them.
  • Your sibling’s life choices aren’t a judgment on your own.
  • Although siblings share parents and some life experiences, they may not have identical values and priorities. One sibling might choose to live near their parents and start ‘adulting’ early (e.g., buy a big house and have a tribe of kids), while another might choose travel and career, with less stability. When your sibling makes different life choices to you, their actions aren’t a judgment on your choices. If they decide to become a stay-home parent rather than returning to paid work after having children, it doesn’t mean they think you should follow suit. It’s fine for different people to want different things, or the same things but at different times.
  • Reach out when things go right. There’s research that shows the importance of reaching out to people when they’re experiencing successes and achievements. This type of support is at least as critical for relationship health as supporting people during tough times. Make a point to do simple stuff like texting your sibling ‘good luck’ on their first day of a new job, or to congratulate them on a career achievement.   
  • Shared experiences don’t affect everyone the same way. The same childhood experiences can have a different impact on different people. Your sibling may feel traumatised by something that happened as a child that you can’t even remember. Maybe your parents missed their recital because they were taking you to the doctor. Children’s brains don’t interpret events in the same way an adult or older child might. You can accept that your sibling feels hurt, resentful or angry, without either judging the validity of, or taking responsibility for, their feelings. This can help you to understand when your sibling’s hurt emotions rear up in your adult interactions and, in turn, stop those interfering with you having a fulfilling, harmonious adult relationship.  

Alice Boyes, PhD, is author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.

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