Did you know that we recently celebrated National Sibling Day, a day to honour and appreciate our brothers and sisters? Sometimes it’s not that easy… We find out from Alicia Drummond, our in-house Parenting and Mental Health Expert, and Founder of Teen Tips and the Teen Tips Wellbeing Hub about family dynamics and how to navigate your way through them.
There is no doubt that the relationship we have with our siblings can have a profound impact on our lives. Growing up together involves a high level of familiarity and very little emotional inhibition, which means sibling relationships can be intense and come with lots of pros and cons.
There is generally no one better at knowing how to wind us up than our siblings but, they can also be our greatest allies, friends, playmates, teachers and supporters.
Sibling relationships are simply different to all other relationships. Parent-child relationships involve an imbalance of power and a level of dependency. Relationships with friends are more equal. Sibling relationships tend to sit somewhere between the two – there can be an imbalance of power because of the age difference but, both being children in the same family, gives a sense of equality. Sharing the family context means sibling relationships can be a source of emotional support, and especially when there are difficulties in the family such as divorce or parental addiction.
Eldest siblings are born into a world of adults and, whilst they might experience more anxious parenting than subsequent children, they can bask in the spotlight of undiluted parental attention. Suddenly this is all disrupted by the arrival of the great usurper and, although it might take a little time for the permanence of the new arrangement to sink in, life changes forever.
The sibling relationship is established early and tends to remain pretty stable through childhood.
Studies suggest that the biggest factor determining the quality of these relationships is the personality of the individuals themselves, and as any parent with more than one child knows, they very definitely arrive with their own personalities.
Of course, parents also play a part in how sibling relationships pan out because, whilst we might think we parent them all the same, we rarely do. We tend to expect more mature behaviour of our eldest children believing that they “should know better” than their little brothers or sisters, but of course they are children too, so it is often an unrealistic expectation. When a sibling fight kicks off, we invariably rush in to rescue the younger child believing they are the weaker party and might get hurt, little realising how good they can be at pushing the buttons of their elder siblings and then sitting back to watch the drama unfold.
Often when siblings fall out there is often a long list of unaired minor grievances which have built up and contributed to the current drama. When we wade in to sort the problem, we rarely take this backlog into account which leads to resentment and feelings of injustice.
It is hard to watch our children argue but, if we can take a step back and expect them to sort themselves out, they invariably do, and in the process, they learn how to do conflict in a safe environment and develop some useful negotiation and conciliation skills.
Sibling relationships also help us develop social skills like sharing, compromise, caring and loyalty but they are complex, and some more so than others. Those with a disabled sibling often develop a maturity beyond their years as they deal with a host of difficult and conflicting emotions from love, compassion and intense loyalty to resentment, jealousy and shame. If one child is more demanding of parental time and engagement whether through ill health, challenging behaviour or academic struggles, other siblings adjust their demands to keep the family system afloat.
Negotiating sibling relationships in blended families is rarely straightforward as the group is in an eternal state of ebb and flow with children moving between households. Every time the family group comes together after a period of absence the pecking order has to be re-established which can make the first few days especially fraught. Simply asking what everyone needs to help them settle quickly can reduce a lot of the drama.
In conclusion whilst all relationships have their challenges, few have the potential to influence our development or provide us with as much learning as the relationship we have with our siblings. Love them or hate them, our siblings are one of the few constants in our lives.
Check out the Inspiring Futures section within the Teen Tips Wellbeing Hub containing a library of podcasts designed to inform and inspire young people about the adult world of work. Just fifteen minutes long, guests are asked to describe their industry, their job, the highs and the lows, how they got to where they are now, and what advice they would give to a young person hoping to follow in their footsteps. To date when asked what someone would need to succeed in their profession, every single one has mentioned social skills.