Emotional Health · Family & Friends

Siblings: Life’s Longest Relationship

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.



When my second grandson was born, his older brother, Nate, was only 13 months old. Although he wasn’t really verbal, he seemed to understand much of what his parents said to him, and they dutifully and empathically prepared him for his new sibling. At first he didn’t seem to take much notice of the tiny new person. But the gift he quietly left in his brother’s bassinet, comically suggested that he may have had a better understanding of what this new arrival meant for him than we realized: it was the toy knife pictured above.

Ignored by Freud, and only recently given more attention by other theorists, our relationships with our siblings are not only among the most important, but also the longest we have over the course of a lifespan. As psychology and psychoanalysis have become more interpersonal (emphasizing the relationships between people) through the years, we have discovered that our siblings, the way they treat us and, especially, the differential way that parents treat their children, can have a profound effect on our lives.

Is sibling rivalry innate? In the animal kingdom the more limited resources are, the more likely that will be true. In her book Cain’s Legacy, Jeanne Safer enumerates several species in which “siblicide”—the murder of a sibling by another—is routine. In humans, however, it is less clear. If love and resources are limited or unfairly distributed, the flames of rivalry are easily ignited. To the extent that parents are aware of the issue and try to control for it, animosity can be tempered, but as Safer points out, “paradoxically, it is often parents’ good intention to treat their children equally that paves the way to sibling hell. Equal distribution of love, always a myth, is a false leveler that cheats all recipients out of being appreciated for their unique qualities.”

RELATED: Book Review: On Recovering from Sibling Rivalry

Trouble can be exacerbated in several different ways. Sometimes it starts before the child is even born because of the parents’ history with their siblings. It is universal that to a certain extent mothers and fathers identify with their children differentially, and they often project onto them attributes of figures from their past and re-enact  aspects of those relationships. This can begin before birth, and be intensified by what name is chosen and whom the baby is thought to resemble. Safer notes a case in which a father proudly asserted that he had always been exactingly evenhanded in the treatment of his identical twin sons. Nevertheless, the two boys had vastly different trajectories, and a wise friend pointed out that perhaps the terrain had not been as level as the father thought, considering he named the “older” twin after himself. Did the father’s identification with this son have anything to do with the fact that the second twin was much less successful in life than his brother?

Often, as in this case, the favoritism is unconscious and unrecognized. Just as we find ourselves repeating some behavior patterns of our parents we swore we wouldn’t repeat with our own kids, we are not completely in control of the way these deep currents flow. For example, all other things being equal, I have found that mothers tend to act out unconscious scenarios more often with their eldest child, especially if she is a girl. This often, though not always, leads that pair to have a close yet also more conflicted relationship. Younger siblings can benefit from the “benign neglect” of not being a figure of identification for the parent.

Personality factors and innate characteristics are perhaps most important in the sibling drama. Anyone with more than one child knows that they can be vastly different, right from the moment you bring them home from the hospital. They are also born into “different” families. A much wanted oldest child who is born to a loving pair of parents may have sibs whose same parents are now stressed or in conflict. Family fortunes can wax and wane in ways that make a huge difference.

RELATED: Family Ties: Lifeline and Gordian Knot

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  • Andrea April 16, 2016 at 8:43 am

    Thank u for Another wonderful and insightful article Cecilia
    I am traveling this weekend with my older sister to visit our 93 year old Dad. I look forward to being together and maybe even arguing about who sits near the window on the plane like we used to 50 years ago!!!
    I feel fortunate to still be able to have those memories and laugh about them now.