11 Jan 2023

How to overcome sibling rivalry

Acquiring a sibling can lead to a lifetime of competition, as you fight tooth and nail for love, attention and resources. But it shouldn’t be like that…

Even if your childhood was dominated by sibling rivalry, or blighted and distorted by obvious parental favouritism, making the transition into adulthood gives you the opportunity to rebuild and consolidate these vital relationships.

As with all relationships, you should try to be observant and empathetic. Relapsing into the worst habits of childhood – competitiveness, teasing, a tendency to put younger siblings down or defer to older siblings – will preserve childhood patterns, preventing you from moving on and progressing.

It is important to embrace change as you and your siblings grow older. You will need to renounce the ingrained feelings of childhood and accept siblings as they currently are, rather than as you remember them being.

Some siblings never fully discard the competitiveness of childhood. They may still be contending for a parent’s love or may simply find childhood patterns of fighting tooth and nail hard to relinquish. A little sibling rivalry might be a good thing, spurring you on to greater achievements in your life and your career. But it can turn sour, replicating the patterns of your childhood and causing family tensions.

As adults, we have the maturity and experience to unpick and address these emotions, something we were never able to do as children. If attempts to find a path through the difficulties fail, we can also set boundaries or put some distance between ourselves and our siblings in order to prevent the situation from deteriorating further.

Follow these recommendations to ensure that you have a civilised relationship with your siblings. With your shared childhood and family background, you can create a special bond and accept that siblings know you in ways that can never be replicated. You may even find that your siblings – far from being your natural enemies – are the best friends you’ll ever have.

• Don’t take the sibling relationship for granted, make time for each other. This means communicating regularly, organising meetings and social events. It is easy to assume that siblings will always be there when needed, but don’t underestimate the risk of drifting apart.

• Accept siblings for who they currently are. Everybody changes and persisting in maintaining an outdated view of a sibling could ultimately be seriously alienating.

• Forget about childhood slights, fights and tensions. That was in the past, and you shouldn’t hold adults still accountable.

• Forget the embarrassing anecdotes; harping on about childhood tantrums, pratfalls and tragedies won’t endear you to your siblings, especially when they are introducing you to new friends or potential partners. You may have the power to inflict agonies of embarrassment on your siblings; it is a sign of maturity and consideration not to wield it.

• Similarly, don’t be the one person who’s keeping a meticulous record of adolescent folly; recalling fashion mistakes, drunken debauches and dating disasters will undermine your siblings’ attempts to put their past behind them. We all reinvent ourselves to some extent when we reach adulthood and siblings should respect that.

• Develop a discrete, separate relationship with each sibling. Try to keep gossip about siblings to a minimum or you’ll have a disruptive impact on family dynamics.

• Being a sibling doesn’t give you carte blanche to interfere in a brother’s or sister’s life. It is important to respect boundaries and to recognise that if they require your help or advice, they will seek it.

• Don’t complain about your siblings’ behaviour to your parents. That represents a depressing reversion to childhood, when you saw your parents as the ultimate arbiters and were quite incapable of dealing with conflicts yourself. Once you’re an adult you need to take responsibility and sort out any problems yourselves.

• Be polite to your siblings. It’s all too easy to relapse into the teasing habits of childhood, or to take siblings for granted. If you find it impossible to forgo your childhood teasing, jokes and insults, remember that outsiders who are introduced to the family may well find this sort of communication alienating, or even alarming.

• Try your hardest to put the competitiveness of childhood behind you. Look to your siblings for lifelong acceptance, loyalty and support …

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