“Siblings that say they never fight are most definitely hiding something” ― Lemony Snicket

Relationships between siblings are complex. Siblings can be friends, confidants, rivals, co-conspirators, and bitter enemies - possibly all at the same time. Individually we make up the families we live in. If we do nothing to de-escalate sibling rivalry, we are part of the problem. If we do our bit to improve things we can bring out each other’s better sides. 

Each of us has “roles” we play at various times of our lives. At birth it’s the “baby” role. When a new baby is born we take on the “older sibling” role, and in all likelihood the “caregiver” to the younger child or children in the family. Family influences our personality in ways that serve the family’s expectations. Differences in temperament as well as position in the family influence the way we are treated.

Middle children often become more independent, feel less pressure to conform, and can be more empathetic than other siblings. Such children can become the “Peacemaker” of the family. Conversely, the middle child used to not getting their own way and wanting attention can become a savvy and skillful manipulator. One child may be singled out as the “Golden Child”, always the winner, incapable of doing wrong. Another child may become the “Rebel Child” with the “couldn’t care less” attitude. This child or yet another child may become the scapegoat blamed for the wrongdoings or faults of other family members. In some families where hot-blooded and volatile personalities exist, a child might be cast as “Cinderella” (or Cinderfella, a reference to Jerry Lewis' 1960s film), valued most for being undemanding. Inevitably over time, roles become identities that influence the way we interact with people.

Beliefs kept by families defend against disturbances or changes. They create a common tie that binds, but which can also break families. Secrets too. Sometimes secrets are treated as if they don’t exist, maintained to uphold a sense of family dignity or to conceal a collective sense of shame. A suicide is not discussed, for example, or someone’s drug problem is denied. Families also have rules to protect against or to uphold certain behaviours and expectations. Implicit rules are more powerful in affecting family behaviour; the fact that they are hidden makes them so. 

Whilst you might be willing to adhere to most or some family beliefs, rules and expectations it’s possible to feel resentful because of the undercurrents they set in motion. So just how can you get along with siblings who, in your eyes, are better positioned in the pecking order or have an easier time? And just how do you enjoy a sense of belonging whilst not compromising your individuality or integrity?

  • Be yourself; everyone else is already taken. So said Oscar Wilde. Thinking for yourself is important in helping discover who you are and what you’re about. As we mature it’s only natural to want to re-assess the rules and beliefs you picked up along the way. It is up to us to decide what’s of personal value and what’s best to discard of the beliefs and expectations we grew up with.
  • Stop wishing your sibling was different Your sibling may not be irritating you or hurting you because they are malicious. They may just view things differently from you. View yourself from your sibling’s perspective. The best way to see a change in them is to change your own thinking and behaviour about them.
  • Manage your emotional self It’s easy to identify someone else as ‘difficult’, but how often do you acknowledge that you can be difficult as well? Take responsibility for your actions. It’s okay to permit feelings, which are neither good nor bad but indicators of your wellbeing. The resilient person is a problem solver who doesn’t paper over uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, but acknowledges them. So whilst conceding that they are angry and thinking to themselves, ‘I’m upset and hurt about this,’ the resilient person is also thinking, ‘but I can deal with it.’ 
  • Show yourself kindness If we take good care of ourselves, we’re more likely to be willing to show loving concern and kindness to others. 
  • Maintain good interpersonal boundaries Foster an atmosphere of mutual respect as opposed to hostile competition between you and your siblings. The best way is to establish personal boundaries. Boundaries help us express our individuality. These are the limits we establish to prevent being encroached upon by other people. These can be material boundaries (money, clothes, food); physical boundaries (your personal space, privacy, and body); mental boundaries (your thoughts, values, and opinions). Whilst other people may try to over-step your boundaries, it’s your job to uphold them. 
  • Walk the walk, not just talk the talk There’s a fable about a crab who asks her son "Why in the world do you walk sideways like that?" "You should always walk straight forward." The little crab obediently answers, "Show me how to walk, I want to learn." The crab tries to walk straight forward, but can only walk sideways like her son. The moral of the story, don’t tell others how to act unless you can set a good example yourself.
  • Follow your conscience Don’t maintain secrets or family rules simply to maintain the peace. If we permit and conceal wrongdoing or maintain lies that may adversely affect other people, we become sharers in the guilt. Be prepared to speak your truth and follow your own conscience. 
  • Take charge of you Don’t think you or your siblings can’t alter entrenched positions or change the way you communicate. Studies on personality suggest changing patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving can eventually lead to permanent changes in a range of different personalities. One possible reason for this is that people change their very social identity as well, including how they see themselves. Exceptions include those who have no scruples (sociopaths), and the extremely self-absorbed (narcissists) because these individuals cannot empathise with, or accommodate, other people and are highly resistant to change. Presented with siblings and other family members like these, there’s little one can do except protect yourself by upholding robust personal boundaries, even cutting ties with them if they pose a danger.

Jane McGregor, Ph.D. is a freelance writer, author and trustee of the UK registered charity, Society for Research into Empathy, Cruelty and Sociopathy (SoRECS) www.sorecs.org