Siblings can be both a blessing and a curse. They’re the ones who know us best: How to comfort us and how to drive us crazy. And they know us longest – if two siblings live to old age, they will have known each other longer than they knew their parents, spouses or children. For better or for worse, they’re with us for life.
In fact, siblings play as important a role in one’s life as parents do, according to Dr. Natasha Sharma, a Toronto-based therapist, TEDx speaker and author of The Kindness Journal.
“It used to be commonly believed that parents were the only attachment figures for children, the only ones in the immediate family who provide the template for establishing safe and secure relationships,” said Sharma, whose doctoral dissertation was on the topic of siblings. “But recent research has shown that siblings play that role as well. They’re some of the first people who test your ability to form productive relationships with other people in the world.”
As we grow up, leave home and start families of our own, having a strong relationship with one’s sisters and brothers can be incredibly helpful, Sharma said. Siblings often share the same point of view, because they grew up in the same environment, and can be supportive in times of crisis or celebratory in times of success.
So how do we foster strong relationships with our siblings? Well, some of it is out of our control, because it starts when we’re very young and stems from the behaviours our parents modeled.
“The family dynamic and parental caregivers play the largest part in influencing sibling relationships,” Sharma said. “If parents are emotionally or physically unavailable, that can cause sibling conflict.”
Favouritism is another parental behaviour that can cause siblings to fight among themselves, as is not setting up emotional and physical boundaries within a family.
“Every family needs healthy boundaries, which means privacy and respect for each other’s wishes.”
However, Sharma insists that sibling rivalry is perfectly normal and, in fact, a necessary part of establishing one’s own identity.
“If parents over-promote getting along, it can backfire,” Sharma said. “Encouraging a healthy level of sibling rivalry is good. Siblings are going to be in each other’s faces for 18-plus years, so normalizing some conflicts is paramount. It’s not easy, and it rests squarely on the shoulders of the parents.”
For siblings in their 20s and 30s who are looking to strengthen their relationships, Sharma has a few tips:
- Make a concerted effort to spend some time together on a regular basis. As long as you’re breathing the same air, you’re on the right track.
- Focus on experiences that can be shared and enjoyed by both siblings. Don’t suggest going for a bike ride together if one person doesn’t like to bike.
- Avoid negative talk about other family members, especially parents. Family bashing can cause alliances to form and may make others feel left out.
For people who want to strengthen sibling relationships later in life, other tactics might apply.
- Schedule visits with the whole family so that cousins can have quality time together while adults bond.
- If people are too busy to visit in person, because of active kids and jobs, try making time to check in over the phone or share messages and photos electronically.
While it’s important and healthy to have good relationships with one’s siblings, there are cases where it’s just not possible, according to Sharma.
“If you decide to sever ties with someone, that’s your personal choice and you shouldn’t be judged because of it,” she said. “But let the anger go. If you don’t, you’re continuing to hurt yourself even in the absence of this person.”
Finally – never say never. Often enough, two people will think they’ve come to the end of their relationship and think they’re parting ways for good. But time or family circumstances – like a wedding, a birth or a death – can bring them back together again.
“Things change and people change,” Sharma said. “So be open to the possibility of having a relationship again in the future, if the time is right.”
416237 CAN/US/UK (04/18)