Sibling Rivalry – Child to Adult

“When we were growing up you always looked like you were having such fun
You always were and you always will be the taller and the prettier one
People seem to love you
They gravitate towards you
That’s why I started to hate you so much
And I just completely ignored you”

[lyrics from Back to the Start by Lily Allen- about her older sister Sarah]

I recently watched the fantastic documentary Supersonic which tells the story of Britpop band Oasis and the never-ending battle for power between warring brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher. It got me thinking about sibling rivalry and how this kind of friction can continue long into adulthood. For example, one third of siblings describe their relationships as rivalrous or distant.

The term “sibling rivalry” was first introduced in 1941 to describe a sibling’s aggressive response to the birth of a new baby into the family unit.  Siblings may compete for attention and exclusive love from their parents, as they feel this is being stolen from them by their younger counterparts.  It’s pretty much recognised that this response by the older sibling is a common feature of family life and that parents can be vigilant to potential (and accidental) favouritism to try and prevent the rivalry response escalating into a bitter conflict. Alas favouritism, or at least the perception of it, is quite common. According to research, parents are more ambivalent towards children who are not married, less educated, and share fewer of their values. 

The tale of adult sibling rivalry is as old as time, starting from the story of Cain and Abel through to Shakespear’s King Lear to modern day examples such as the Gallagher brothers or the more civilised battle between Ed and David Miliband. 

So what can be done to make amends for potentially such old wounds amongst adult siblings?

Well one major way is to try and step out of a child-mode way of being for a moment. After all this is pretty much what we’re talking about here when it comes to adult sibling rivalry ; regression to childhood.  In adult mode you might be able to see things from your siblings perspective and develop a bit of empathy (this doesn’t mean forgiveness by the way). Even though you grew up in the same household, each member experiences everything differently and this is where the trouble can start.  Just by allowing some space for mutual understanding to exist can make all the difference and certainly will lessen tensions between you. 

Another point to be aware of are triangles or triads. What I mean by this is often in conflicts it’s easy for us to drag another party in, so to garner support, evidence etc. This is an issue between you and your sibling, so keep it like that. No one else need get involved, especially your parents as this will only heighten the situation and reinforce childhood regression. 

If you can, really challenge yourself with some self-reflection. What is the point of holding onto all these past hurts? Why are you allowing your sibling to have power and influence over you? How is this serving you in your life right now? What would it be like to let the past be the past? If we can shift perspective a little, then we can start to make inroads towards a more amicable relationship. 

And lastly, if the sibling relationship has become toxic and beyond repair, you may need to consider how much you want them in your life as an adult. Estrangement from family members is tough, but it’s important you put yourself first and foremost. Limit your exposure to this difficult relationship. It may mean redesigning your other relationships in the family and this can be uncomfortable for all involved. But by actually taking control of how you want things to be, often that can have a positive impact on our wellbeing and improve our long term relations overall in the household. 

It’s important to remember that sibling rivalry amongst children is perfectly normal and part of healthy development. By allowing a child to freely experience the full power of their emotions, we allow them also to begin to take responsibility for their feelings. It’s when this conflict graduates to adulthood that things might become a little problematic.

Photo by Andre Halim on Unsplash

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