It may not be your fault if you have trouble getting along with a brother or sister. The relationship patterns we develop in our childhood homes can stay with us forever. Many people can create strong bonds of friendship with their siblings, bringing them comfort and happiness. For others, sibling relationships may be a source of ongoing pain. If this is true for you, it may have less to do with the two of you and more to do with the behavior patterns set in place by your parents.
Parents set the tone in the house for their children. Dysfunction in the home will generate dynamics that disrupt (or impede) healthy, loving relationships between siblings.
In our case, we grew up in a home with addiction, abuse, and mental illness that forced us into specific roles that put us at odds. Ronni was the oldest and regarded as the “good child.” Jennie was the youngest and was painted as the “bad child.” Originally, our parents pushed us into these roles, but we helped lock each other into them over time. For example, as she got older, Ronni joined our parents in ridiculing Jennie and putting her down, further cementing her role as the family scapegoat.
Children are often so young when these dynamics begin that they don’t realize that they’re hurting their siblings. They focus on earning the approval of their parents and simply follow their lead.
The interference of others
Oftentimes the difficulties among siblings are made worse by the interference of other people. This is especially true in families with abusive dynamics. As we became adults, we recognized that our mother had been pitting us against each other our entire lives. Even once we left home, she insisted that we stay in touch with her, but discouraged us from communicating directly with each other. That kept her in the middle of our relationship and allowed her to tell us half-truths (or outright lies) that kept us stirred up and angry with each other.
Only when we started talking to each other directly were we able to recognize this pattern, and the damage it had done to our relationship.
Meeting the emotional needs of parents
In healthy families, parents are there to meet the emotional needs of their children. However, in some families, the children are expected to meet the needs of the parents. This can happen in subtle ways.
Sometimes the parent will encourage children to compete to be the “favorite child.” Resentments build when one sibling feels another made them look bad, or when one won a particular favor from the parent. In other cases, a parent may use emotional manipulation to encourage each child to “prove” that they’re loyal to the parent — often, above all other family members.
When children try to meet the needs of their parents and are competing, there’s less time and energy to put into nurturing the sibling bond. And if the sibling is viewed as competition — or worse, an enemy — there’s often more animosity than the love between them.
Break the cycle and create healthier sibling relationships
All these dynamics played out in our sibling relationship. We were at odds with each other until well into our twenties. Then we began to realize that our relationship wasn’t working and that we wanted it to be better.
If some of the patterns described above seem familiar to you, perhaps you’re thinking, “I wish I got along better with my sibling.” If so, the simplest way forward is to start a conversation with them. You’ll need to be honest, even vulnerable. It will require you both to revisit times when you felt hurt by the other. But if you can focus on how you got here — the dynamics in your childhood home that may have impacted how you interacted with each other — you may find it easier to put your relationship back on track.
As you chart a new path forward, you’ll need to see each other with new eyes and give each other the benefit of the doubt. Since you’ve agreed that you want to work together to improve the relationship, try to see the other as doing their best to live up to that agreement. If they’re falling short, you can give them gentle reminders. When your sibling says something hurtful, you can respond by saying, “You may not realize how you’re coming across, but what you just said really felt like a put-down.” Responding in this way gives your sibling the chance to see what they’ve been doing, as well as the opportunity to apologize and change their behavior.
Finally, be realistic. Most of us can’t change overnight. It took us a number of years to fully repair our relationship. Humor became our greatest ally; we used it to de-escalate tense moments and to point out when one (or both) of us were slipping into old patterns: “Oh, I see you’re wearing your bossy pants today.” It’s much more fun to laugh with each other instead of at each other.
Our friendship continues to deepen because we don’t allow anyone to come between us or define our relationship for us. If we have a problem with each other, we address it directly. We don’t bad-mouth each other or involve others in our disagreements. By sticking to these rules, we’ve put our childhood behind us and created a loving bond that nurtures and supports us both.
Ronni Tichenor has a Ph.D. in sociology, specializing in family studies, from the University of Michigan. Jennie Weaver received her degree from the Vanderbilt School of Nursing and is a board-certified family nurse practitioner with over 25 years of experience in family practice and mental health. Their new book, Healing Begins with Us: Breaking the Cycle of Trauma and Abuse and Rebuilding the Sibling Bond (HeartWisdom LLC, April 5, 2022), shares their inspiring and hopeful story of healing from their painful upbringing. Subscribe to their podcast: Ronni and Jennie: Breaking the Cycles of Trauma and Abuse, Silence and Shame. Find links on ronniandjennie.com.
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