Brothers and Sisters: An Ambivalent Relationship

by Geoff Boutle
(Basingstoke, UK)

This article reviews the importance of the role played by siblings in individual emotional development.

The recent fraternal squabbling within the Miliband and Gallagher families has been noted by many who can identify with quarrels and competition between brothers. The counselling world in particular has often looked with interest at family dynamics and the impact of these experiences on individual emotional development.

Yet that interest is usually focussed on parental figures and the influence exerted by the mother or father over the younger members of the family. Some key writers on psychotherapy such as Freud and more recently Winnicott and Bowlby have made reference to the importance of understanding sibling interactions but nowadays such comments are more usually found within works involving family therapy than individual counselling.

Parents do of course have a powerful impact on the development of children and adolescents. Nevertheless, the consequences of age and mortality inevitably results in most children spending a longer period of life in contact with brothers and sisters than with their parents. The impact of this contact and the influence of siblings on personal development often appears to be overlooked by therapists. Yet the relationship between brothers and sisters can be reflected by a titanic clash of opposing emotions, of love and hate, of competition and support, and of envy and admiration.

One key issue which has potential implications in future development is the order of birth. The first born holds the centre of the family ring and until a new arrival emerges into the family scene, is the subject of admiration and attention from parents and grandparents alike. That may allow for the development of a more self-assured personality who is certain of his or her place and does not have to fear the competition from an older and more adept competitor in the quest for parental approval.

Apart from one child families where the first born retains forever a monopoly of attention, the first born does eventually have to deal with the challenge arising the the advent of newcomers. That threat can lead to early experiences of jealousy and the way in which the child is supported through that phase may have consequences for later life.

The second born has to accept however that the fight for attention is on before even before weaning is complete. He or she may become alert to expectations and to comparisons with what has gone before. An inability to achieve the same standards as the older sibling, whether of motor skills or fledgling social skills, may result in an inadvertent undermining of self, which may remain with the new arrival long after the move away from childhood. The arrival of more brothers and sisters can also create the middle child syndrome where the child is neither the oldest nor the youngest and struggles to find a traditional role to fill within the family.

The youngest children of a large family can also face other confusing relationships. There may be a succession of family members who take on the caring role beyond just the mother and father. Older sisters and brothers who are asked to ‘look after’ the new infant may inadvertently provide a succession of carers. If the youngest child is used to turning from one older relative to another for care and support, that may make it easier for such a pattern to continue into adult life. Long term attachments may seem ambivalent with sibling experiences providing an unconscious legitimising of moving from one loving relationship to another.

The profusion of siblings within a family unit can also carry positive implications for the later arrivals. Encouragement may be given to the early development of social skills as the child forms relationships with older brothers and sisters. This can assist the infant to experience differential patterns of behaviour and language which may allow him or her to develop a more sophisticated set of social skills than might be expected of them.

Having already made reference for example, to the Milibands it is interesting to note that out of the last ten British Prime Ministers – a role which today puts much emphasis on excellent communication skills – only one has been first born. The other nine all had to contend in early life with older siblings. That pattern seems to have continued with the success albeit narrowly, of the younger Miliband

Older siblings may however bring forward difficult challenges for their brothers and sisters if the younger child is continually belittled in her or his attempts to keep pace with the older and more adept siblings. That can impact on issues including language skills, emotional or physical development. These experience for good or ill can cast a shadow which travels long beyond adolescence into adulthood.

There are many other developmental issues which may be affected by sibling interactions. This includes challenges around gender and sexual identity. The way in which the family allows these complex and sensitive issues to be explored may impact on the ability of the adolescent to deal with emerging aspects of physical intimacy. The first seeds of guilt, envy and jealousy may be sown in early years as siblings vie for parental affection and then turn outside the home to explore the first non family relationships. These are moves which may leave younger siblings feeling rejected or confused.

Grieving and loss may first find expression as a reaction to an older brother or sister leaving home. The larger family may however be able to help the younger child absorb such experiences within a relatively safe environment. This can provide a safe rehearsal for dealing with future emotional hardship in a way which cannot be achieved within the single child family. Other siblings can act as shock absorbers and provide mutual support and understanding when a parent dies.

The continuity of family life may be more easy achieved within the larger family and allow for loss to be contained. Stories of parents may continue to be told and retold long after those particular actors have left the family stage. Family myths can be embellished with the retelling continuing to influence siblings. The role of each within the family may also be maintained by the repetition of family stories. For example the youngest may always feel as though they are indeed treated as the baby of the family long after parents have died.

The interplay of siblings can give rise to a myriad of influences on emotional development. It is therefore somewhat surprising that greater attention within the counselling world is not given to the impact of sibling relationships on emotional development. It may be that such nuances of behaviour are difficult to include and account for within research projects. As counsellors however it is incumbent upon us to ensure that within the therapy room, clients do have time and space in which to safely reflect upon the forces which have shaped their lives. The counselling room provides space to celebrate but also to dilute any baneful influences which may persist.

We do not choose our families but we can decide to deal with those aspects of family life which continue to cause distress long after the events have faded. We should also be ready to celebrate that which has helped us to grow, to strengthen our internal resolve and enhance our ability to love and support.

Our siblings whether we like the idea or not, will have influenced our emotional development. Counselling is about helping clients to understand the forces which will have shaped them and to then support the client to change emotional direction if she or he wishes to do so. The appreciation and acceptance of the impact upon us of our brothers and sisters can be a key part of our continued development and personal growth.

Geoff Boutle

­I am experienced BACP Accredited counsellor working with clients on a range of personal issues including anxiety, stress, loss of self esteem and depression. My practice is located in leasent offices in an attractive location in Worting House, near Basingstoke in Hampshire UK. I use a number of different approaches, from cognitive behavioural therapy to existential counselling and brief solution focussed therapy to provide the right support for each individual client.

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