for release Friday November 12, 2004
by Melodie Davis
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series on adult siblings.
Adult Siblings: How To Get Along
The key to getting along as adult siblings is understanding how the rivalries and relationships we had as children may still be affecting us.
One woman wrote to me about being bullied by her sisters. They can’t communicate and when they try, they end up getting madder and then have additional reasons to hate each other and stay apart. Another mother, in anguish over her own adult children not getting along, wanted tips on how to help her children. Unfortunately, incest between siblings (especially by older brothers towards younger females) is very often a problem, and a younger sibling is frightened of speaking up.
Favoritism is the single most common cause of sibling rivalry—and memories of that favoritism can fuel rivalry later in life, too. Almost all parents try not to play favorites, but each child is different, and the personality of child and parent may clash. “That little 15-month-old or 17-month-old is watching like a hawk what goes on between her mother and older sibling. The greater the difference in the maternal [or paternal] affection and attention, the more hostility and conflict between the siblings.” says Judy Dunn, who has done pioneering sibling studies, by observing siblings at home instead of in a lab. Those who study sibling relationships recognize that even small children are “far more socially sophisticated than we ever imagined,” says Dunn, (Psychology Today, Jan./Feb. 1993).
Dunn goes on to say that by age three, children know how to manipulate their brother or sister to get what they want—or alternatively, how to adapt and withdraw from frustrating experiences. Perhaps a dislike for a sibling festers and grows in either situation.
These kinds of statements used to scare me when my children were small. How could we ever manage to avoid all the pitfalls of parenting?
However, if you really try to be a good parent; work hard to avoid favoritism; and do fun things as a family, you will probably foster an environment where good sibling bonds have the chance to grow even if you endure occasional loud skirmishes. You should protect children from physically hurting each other when necessary, but you probably don’t have to worry excessively. I say when necessary because a certain amount of “standing up for oneself” is healthy and needed between siblings. Some say that the more parents interfere and force kids to avoid conflict in childhood, the less inclined adult siblings are to work out difficulties later in life.
Comparisons by outsiders can also have a very negative impact. Unfortunately, those are difficult to control, but parents can be on guard to counter or downplay comparative statements. The competitiveness between siblings often continue into adulthood with who went to the best college, got the best job, best spouse or house.
The role of in-laws is important too: it is hard to have a good relationship with your brother or sister if you don’t get along with their spouse. This takes appreciating the love they have for your sibling, patience, an effort to understand how they are different, and the different family system they came from.
It is one thing to try and foster good sibling relationships when children are small, and quite another to work at those relationships as adults. Then it is mostly up to the siblings themselves to want to get along, and to work hard at improving relationships that may be mired down in old patterns. However, parents sometimes unwittingly contribute to and meddle in the affairs of the brothers and sisters, so be aware of that possibility if you are a parent with adult children who don’t get along.
Understanding our childhoods and trying to analyze why certain things push our buttons can be helpful as adults. One set of siblings who literally “wrote the book” on getting along as adult siblings, Joann, Marjory and Joel Levitt, offer these tips and more in Sibling Revelry: Eight Steps to Successful Adult Sibling Relationships (Dimensions, 2001).
1. Define your relationship. Unload the myths of your shared past ... and discover who you are to each other now.
2. Witness the effect of old rivalries. Use them as a springboard to better adult relationships.
3. Envision a new future. Break the habits that hold your relationship firmly in place ... and create a powerful new vision for yourself and your family.
4. Heal wounds and misunderstandings. Resolve old conflicts as you sort through old issues of fear, anger, guilt, and hurt.
5. Invent new family histories. Uncover the myths, legends and memories that have shaped your relationship ... then create new ones.
6. Make room for differences. Clear out "sibling clutter" and accept your siblings exactly as they are.
Comments or your own story? Or, for a free copy of this two-part series, write or e-mail me at: Melodie Davis, Another Way, Box 22, Harrisonburg VA 22802 or e-mail email@example.com (Please include your paper's name in your response.)
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.
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