‘Mom always did like you best!’ Sound familiar?
The sibling relationship is a love-hate affair from day one. And often the rivalries, jealousies and hurts inflicted by our brothers and sisters in childhood are carried into adulthood.
Although experts say that adult sibling rivalry is one of the most harmful issues in a family, it still remains the least addressed. While many of us long for better relationships with our brothers and sisters, several studies indicate that up to 45% of adults have a rivalrous or distant relationship with a sibling and are generally far more verbally aggressive with their brothers and sisters than with anyone else… and this despite the fact that our sibling relationships are often the longest of our lives.
‘Sibling rivalry is a normal aspect of childhood,’ says Joanne Becker, a Clinical Psychologist who conducts the Family Work and Relationships module that forms part of SACAP’s Bachelor of Applied Social Science Degree. ‘Our siblings are our first rivals,’ continues Becker, ‘They competed with us for the love and attention of the people we needed most, our parents, and it is understandable that we occasionally felt threatened.’
Becker explains that, while childhood sibling squabbles may be a headache for parents, they can actually help children make developmental strides in a ‘safe relationship’ and provide good training for interacting with peers: ‘Learning to manage intense feelings is an important task of childhood and sibling relationships offer children an opportunity to work through these and to master social skills – things like negotiation, compromise and tolerance – that they can then use in the outside world.’
But what is important, adds Becker, is the way in which these feelings are responded to and managed within the family unit. ‘Parents can exacerbate rivalry by showing favouritism or bias in their management of sibling conflicts,’ she says. ‘With the best intentions, they also often unintentionally fuel the process. They see the rivalry of their children as a personal failure or have a tendency to make children hide their feelings by saying things like: “Be nicer to your sister. You love your little brother, don’t you?”.’
Why, though, do sibling rivalries last so long after childhood? According to Becker, this is largely because the childhood dynamic often continues into adulthood where it manifests as bitter conflict. ‘Part of ourselves remains the child who demands her share of parental love,’ she says. ‘Children who didn’t get enough recognition from their parents can remain stuck in needy relationships all their lives.’
While much of what is written about sibling rivalry focuses on its effects during childhood, the fact that the rivalry so often persists into adulthood is because, in many families, it goes unaddressed, says American Psychologist Jeanne Safer, author of Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy and Regret. ‘Most people who have been through years of therapy have worked out a lot of guilt with their parents. But when it comes to their siblings, they can’t articulate what is wrong,’ Safer explains.
Becker concurs: ‘Longstanding sibling conflicts are likely to be due more to difficulties within the childhood family than between the siblings themselves. In fact, research shows that adults from rigid or conflict-ridden families tend to have a harder time changing their perceptions of their siblings and breaking out of childhood roles. This is why it is crucial, when addressing sibling conflict in adults, that the dynamics of the whole family system – both childhood and adult – be systematically considered.’