10/7/2022 | By Donna Brody

Our sibling relationships ultimately become our longest-lasting relationships, from childhood, as adults, and through old age. By understanding those connections, we can better support ourselves, our brothers and sisters, and – when necessary – our aging parents.

Remember that time your sister wrecked your bike when you were 8 and she was 10? Of course you do. Some adults can relay stories from their childhood with surprising detail, like they happened yesterday, especially when those details involve hurts, either physical or emotional, inflicted by a sibling. I hit my sister in the nose with a metal can of baby powder while we were wrestling on our double bed. She cut my hand with a pair of pointy scissors when we were cutting out paper dolls. Even though those events happened more than 60 years ago, we both still remember them.

“Even beyond middle age, siblings still remember the way they felt as kids. This affects their relationships with each other and their psychological well-being. It sticks with us,” says Megan Gilligan, PhD, an Iowa State University associate professor.

Childhood roles can linger into adulthood

The space, both geographical and emotional, between us and our sisters and brothers usually increases as we age, but it can be easy to fall back on familiar patterns when we get together with our adult siblings for events such as holiday dinners, reunions, and important family occasions like weddings or funerals. These familiar patterns may have something to do with our birth order as the oldest, middle, or youngest child, or the other “roles” we were assigned in our family as children.

“Parental expectations may lead to comparisons between siblings that can result in labels that can last a lifetime” says Jeremy Boyle, research associate at Brigham Young University. “Common labels include whiz kid, wonder child, klutz, do-gooder, rebel, delinquent, crazy one, clown, happy-go-lucky one, and bully. These labels often mold us – we become our labels.”

Being called the family klutz or a delinquent in front of your spouse and children at Christmas dinner might not be as funny to you as your brother or sister thinks it is, and this can lead to hard feelings that will either be expressed or repressed. Either way, those feelings won’t help your current relationship with your sibling. “Continuing to be pigeonholed this way well into adulthood can be hurtful and get in the way of further personal growth,” says psychotherapist Kathleen Dahlen deVos.

Also, while no one actually likes to think their mother or father had a favorite child, experts say it can happen. “If parents show favoritism toward a child,” says Boyle, “they can harm and even destroy sibling relationships.” That childhood resentment can last well into the adult years.

Rising above childhood hurts

happy older Asian sisters. Photo by Noipornpan, Dreamstime. Sibling relationships often last into old age. As adults, we can maintain them to support ourselves, our brothers, sisters, and aging parents.

Still, as we advance in adulthood, it is probably safe to say that most of us would like to maintain a healthy relationship with our grownup siblings. But, is that always possible? Childhood conflicts and labels aside, there will inevitably be new things along the way that cause stress and put a strain on those relationships. Sometimes that strain can even lead to total estrangement from those who were once closest to us.

As Boyle points out, “Over time, families experience many changes such as marriage, siblings having children, the illness and death of elderly parents, the parents’ or a sibling’s divorce, geographical moves, and career successes or failures. Each of these situations can cause new sibling rivalries.”

Clinical psychologist John Duffy explains the effects of such changes: “This is a strikingly common occurrence among siblings. It doesn’t always suggest a rift, it’s often just different preferences … I am forever struck by how different siblings can be from one another. They often choose different geographic locations, occupations, qualities in spouses, and virtually every element of their lifestyles.”

Related: ‘Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation’

The tie that continues to bind

Yet, even though they may have grown geographically, educationally, or politically apart and have less contact, one thing will still unite siblings by choice or necessity – their aging parents. Siblings must often find a way to work together to make serious and sometimes life-or-death decisions regarding the eventual care of one or both parents. This will involve emotional as well as financial challenges and discussion.

“As your parents age, you may find new conflict arising between you and your brothers and sisters – or old conflict in new forms, especially if you are sharing caregiving responsibilities,” says Boyle. Many psychologists agree this is the time to put aside old hurts and grudges to achieve what is best for all involved in making the decisions.

Related: Managing family conflicts in caring for aging parents

Eldercaring coordination

“Challenge yourself to better understand your brother or sister’s perspective, goals, needs, and preferences. This takes skills like compassion and listening,” advises clinical psychologist and professor Laurie Kramer. “Communication is key,” the article continues. “Clearly state your own needs to your brother or sister. Let them know what you need from them, what is no longer true about yourself, and what you care about.”

In the end, our relationships with our siblings are often the longest relationships of our lives, longer than those we have with parents, spouses, our children, grandchildren, and friends. They are worth holding on to.

“Siblings are most people’s longest-lasting relationships – from early childhood through old age,” according to the American Psychological Association. “Well into adulthood, siblings keep influencing one another’s mental health and well-being. Warm sibling relationships – those with more affection and intimacy and less conflict – are a source of material and emotional support, with the power to protect against loneliness and depression.”

Donna Brody

Donna Brody is a former community college English instructor who retired to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She enjoys freelance writing and has self published three romance novels. Besides writing and traveling with her husband, she keeps busy visiting her seven grandchildren.

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