Sibling bonds among the strongest and most complex
Special to the Appeal
One of my supervisors used to say, “Of course your siblings know how to push your buttons better than anyone. They are the people who installed them.” It’s true; no one can drive you crazier than your sister or brother. On the other hand, no one else has seen all your “warts” and loves you anyway.
As my husband and I prepare to adopt our second daughter, I realize that my daughter will soon be a sister. This has made me think about my relationship with my sisters and how my parents helped us to also be good friends.
Obviously, I would like the same for my daughters and, as a psychologist, I am aware that we as parents can dramatically impact the quality of relationship our children have with each other.
Psychology has always understood the importance of sibling relationships. It began with Freud’s study of sibling rivalry, and has continued throughout the century with more complex research.
If you have siblings, that relationship will likely be the longest relationship you’ll have. In fact, most siblings are born within 10 years of each other and die at about the same age. So our relationship with our siblings lasts longer than that with our parents, spouses, friends and even our own children.
For those of us who have siblings, those emotional bonds can be among the most rich, complex and supportive relationships we ever experience. Sharing a common history in childhood is the backbone of most sibling relationships. What’s more, what we learn growing up with our siblings sets the template for learning how to compromise, negotiate conflicts, and persevere in relationships later in life.
Research has shown that siblings can act as an emotional buffer against traumatic situations. A common example of this is surviving abusive families. The cardinal rule in most abusive families is “deny” and “keep the secret.” Studies show that if you have a sibling who validates your reality (“Dad did that to you”), and with whom you can discuss the abuse, you will be better off.
And most siblings do stick together through thick and thin. My sisters and I could be in the midst of a terrible argument one minute. Yet if someone threatened us in any way, we would rally together in seconds to protect each other. Perhaps it is the depth of these moments that also sets the stage for the unconditional love and acceptance siblings offer each other in the midst of driving each other crazy.
That said, sibling relationships can also be a very difficult dynamic. Sibling rivalry and feeling emotionally or physically bullied are common but painful struggles amongst many siblings. These struggles tend to be the result of children believing a parent favors their sibling, and can result in emotional pain and resentment between siblings. Parents should strive to always treat their children equally in all ways and make sure to spend individual time with each of them regularly. Equally means parents should strive for equal strictness or leniency in disciplining and equality in gifts, time and attention.
Perozynski, Ph.D., and Kramer, Ph.D. (2001), found that most parents believe siblings need a lot of supervision when playing together and need their parents to teach them how to compromise and work out conflicts. Surprisingly, however, most parents in this study reported that they do not help in these ways; rather, unless conflict became physical, parents tended to stay out of their children’s fights. Research shows the more supervision and guidance parents give their children about how to relate well together, the closer the siblings tend to be.
Sibling relationships change as people age. It is not uncommon for young children to become disgruntled and disheartened when a new child enters the family. When siblings are young, squabbles are normal, but so is lots of time spent playing together. Most siblings grow closer in their teenage years when they bond together around the fact that their parents are “dorks” and their rules “stupid.”
In young adulthood, sibling bonds commonly lessen as each sibling sets off into the world to develop his or her own identity and independence, begin careers, and start families of his or her own. During significant life events such as the death of parents or family tragedies, siblings often renew close contact. Once children are raised, siblings typically grow closer again. It is the realization that they have a common history that cements older-sibling relationships.
Sisters and brothers may know each other better than anyone. No one else knows your life like your sibling does, your lifelong companion through thick and thin. So nurture your sibling relationships at all times and help your children do the same.
• Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.