Emotional Health · Family & Friends

Siblings: Life’s Longest Relationship

Yet it is the children’s innate characteristics that determine much of what goes on. Safer tells of two brothers in which the younger boy was much more assertive and aggressive than his sibling. Even though he was two years younger, he was constantly fighting with and beating up the shy older boy. This continued until the thoughtful parents gave the older son boxing lessons that helped him defend himself on a more equal footing.

Sometimes one child will be born with talents that the parents find especially appealing. An intellectual family may favor the child with the best grades, while a sports-oriented family may seem to worship the child with athletic prowess. A sib with perfectly respectable talents that are of less interest to the parents can be denied the attention he or she craves.

As siblings grow into adulthood their differing strengths and personalities can lead them in opposing directions. Political, religious, and other differences in values can cause strife or even estrangement. These factors can be exacerbated when spouses don’t get along with their partner’s siblings or if they have vastly different backgrounds. Disparities in financial success can lead to bad blood, and, as Safer notes, the distribution of estates and inheritance can often be the last straw in a relationship already rife with difficulties.

An especially complex set of issues arises when one (or more) of the siblings is troubled or handicapped in some way. This situation is actually fairly common, and it can have profound effects on the family dynamics.  The “problem” child can co-opt much of the family’s resources and attention, leaving the other children neglected or feeling slighted. The negative attention and care that the troubled sib is getting leave less to give to the others, who may have many appealing features that go unnoticed. The problems that beset these kids are detailed in Safer’s earlier book, The Normal One. Often they are subject to self-doubt and low self esteem because as children they did not understand the reasons their parents didn’t have enough time or attention for them, despite the fact that they were being “good kids.”

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Another issue that arises in these kinds of families is that the “normal” kid(s) feels responsible for the troubled one.  A scenario like this can begin in childhood and extend to the grave, since parents often expect the luckier kids to look after the troubled one after they are gone. Much can depend on factors beyond control. If your spouse is not on board, your dedication to the difficult sibling can cause marital problems. If the sibling’s problem requires frequent unpaid loans, or money for rehab or bail, even the most generous sibling can burn out. Yet “giving up” on a troubled sibling can cause deep guilt and conflict.

No problem is more wrenching than that of the handicapped sibling. Not only is the more average child prone to “survivor guilt,” questioning why she is the “lucky one,” but she may also face feelings of deprivation and resentment because of all the extra attention the handicapped sibling requires. Sometimes continuing to care for the disabled sibling stretches one’s resources to the limit and threatens the needs of the next generation of children. The dilemmas faced by these unfortunate families can be heartbreaking.

And yet, despite the difficulties that some families have getting along, there are millions of people who care for and deeply love their siblings, including those troubled and/or handicapped. The bond between brothers and sisters offers the joy of shared history, understanding, and support that can be a great pleasure and asset if treated with respect and care. If you are lucky enough to have a sibling you can be close to, the feeling of knowing there is someone who will never give up on you can be glorious. If not, Safer says, it may be worth your while to work through your problem so that you can either be closer, or forgive yourself and move on.



Safer, Jeanne. The Normal One.  2002, Free Press.

Safer, Jeanne. Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy, and Regret.  2012, Basic Books.

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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.