Sibling relationships are one of the most significant of our relationships. Most children grow up with a sibling. In the fragmented families of today, this is more common than growing up with a father. Children spend more time usually with a sibling than any other member of the family unless there is a wide gap in ages. Blood is thicker than water. Getting on well with a sibling or siblings is an accurate predictor for mental health in adulthood.
It all started with Cain and Abel, the first siblings. They did not get on and this rivalry unleashed a cascade of events, murder and exile. Jacob and Esau fared no better. Issues of favouritism and inheritance caused issues there and parent-child coalitions fragmented the family. Sound familiar? Nothing much has changed.
Greed, entitlement and jealousy are a common problem between siblings. Healthy loving sibling relationships are the best thing for us, but toxic ones are destructive not only to our mental health but to the whole family unit. Parents often side with one child or the other so the family dynamics are fragmented leading to more issues for the children and a negative effect on the parental relationship too.
Birth Order Blues
Birth order matters especially in families where this order defines the role of a child. Prince Harry has never recovered from being second born. He feels a ‘spare’. How common has this been an issue through history and how many murders have occurred to secure a throne, to be first in line to power. Children want to be the focus of parents and others and some children never mature past this immaturity. If it isn’t all about them, they throw a tantrum or blame someone else, often their sibling.
It’s not as simple as the oldest being the most mature and a leader, the baby, the spoilt one and the middle child the easy going one. Because there are forces between each member of the family and each sibling and the ages between siblings factor into the equation, as does the gender.
Sibling gender and triangles
A sibling relationship is also affected by the gender and age difference of the siblings. Sister-sister bonds are usually the most intimate whereas brother-sister ones can be conflicted. Mind you, some sisters become rivals, like the actresses, Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine. There were a number of other famous sisters who were rivals.
Usually, the oldest of a sibling, pair regardless of gender, is more caring and protective but not always. Bullying can occur due to jealousy and competition for parental attention or imagined or real favouritism. To complicate matters, having more than two siblings creates triangles of relationships. Two siblings may side against the third, or with a parent. Triangles of affiliation are very common in families.
Sibling violence is child abuse
Surprisingly, sibling violence is the most common form of child abuse. Scientists studying siblings report conflict can occur as often as eight times an hour. Physical violence like kicking, biting, pinching and punching are very common and not always noticed or corrected by the parents. This constitutes bullying and one child can live in a terrible environment with the suffering unknown to the parents. Kids are sneaky. This type of negative sibling interaction can lead later to substance abuse, delinquency, and adult violence.
Parents may unintentionally feed into this toxic situation by favouring one child over another. This perpetuates jealousy often the root cause of the sibling conflict.
Sibling Support and Influence
Sibling support is a buffer for troubles elsewhere, especially school so without it, a child can really suffer into adulthood. Psychology has traditionally focused on the parent-child relationship to understand childhood influences on adult development.
More attention is now being paid to the influence of siblings. It can explain issues with self-esteem and disruptive and risky behaviour better than just considering the home environment and parent child interaction. The whole thing is very complex especially when there are more than just two siblings. But it is worth being aware of as a parent because whatever childhood you have, it follows you into adult hood affecting relationships there too.
Well Functioning Families
The characteristics of a well-functioning family are support, love, security, belonging, communication, and the ability to make each other feel important and valued.
A well-functioning family also has six characteristics, namely:
Borders that can be restrictive or disengaged from each other,
Roles in that members can be the boss, the clown, the bully, the peacemaker,
Rules which cover traditions like watching a movie together on Saturday night,
Hierarchy as in who is in charge. This is a big one that causes huge issues if the one in charge is a bully or unreasonable.
Climate. This is the emotional and physical environment,
Equilibrium, whether changes like divorce happen to destabilize the family.
There is a lot Going on in a Family.
You can appreciate by now, there is a lot going on in a family. Even a small nuclear family of four can harbour a toxic triangle of power. Some say bigger families are better perhaps because of that. If there are a lot of siblings or an older generation living in the home, each child usually can find an ally to buffer them against the other siblings, or a power-wielding parent.
Childhood stays with you
One thing for sure is that childhood is not left behind when you leave home. Any counsellor or psychologist will always start by asking you about your childhood. It is the most important foundation for adult life and a lot can and does go wrong for so many children.
Part of the reason for this is that parents were children once themselves and are carrying the wrongs of their own childhood into the new family. Their experience flows onto how they deal with their offspring. Maybe they are slack and don’t supervise or care much for the kids, maybe they are over strict and constantly criticise, or punish the kids, or maybe favour one child over the other. Any of these styles of parenting can lead to sibling issues with the resulting violence or psychological abuse.
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I hope you had a happy childhood and have healthy supportive family and sibling relationships. If not, maybe we can help with our encouraging posts, as we empower you as a woman. Drop us your email, so we can give you the specifics. We really value your opinion.
Joni Scott is an Australian author with three published novels: Whispers through Time and The Last Hotel and Colour Comes to Tangles. Joni also co-hosts a women’s blog; https://whisperingencouragement.com/ and has her own website; https://joniscottauthor.com.