Have you ever wished your siblings would just go away? I have. And not just once. A lot. But that’s normal right? We all fight with our siblings and we get over it, don’t we? How many times growing up did I hear my mother say, “Oh you don’t like your big sister now but when you’re adults you’ll be best friends.” Well I’m grown up, in fact I’m 53 and I’m still waiting.
My sister and I barely communicate, situation normal. It’s not that I don’t like her, nor her me (I think) and we’re both nice, fully functioning people. Neither of us is in jail, or rehab, in fact we each have families, kids, pets, jobs, marriages. We’re just not close. Actually, that’s a cop out. I think we’re actually afraid of each other. LIke really afraid. So what went wrong to spoil this sacred sisterly relationship? Well everything that could, did.
I grew up in a totally dysfunctional family, my parents were divorcing for the first half of my childhood and when they stopped my mother got herself a 'boyfriend' and spent the second half of my childhood breaking up with him. All that aside, both my mother and father and later my mother's boyrfriend, were all the self-absorbed, narcissistic types who found themselves way more interesting than their three children. Three children is a lot to juggle and my parents had very little natural juggling aptitude, nor any interest in acquiring it, so they just dropped the ball…all three of us.
Worse still, not all my parents’ children were considered equally uninteresting, their interest in us was unfortunately patchy. It waxed and wained over the years but when their gaze fell upon us, it invariably fell on one person, my older brother.
My big brother was the first born cliche writ large: An artistic, egotistical, histrionic personality that demanded a lot of extra attention and nurturing. My big sister was the classic middle child; quietly strong, independent, kind of invisible and emotionally opaque. I was the cardbaord cutout youngest; loud, rebellious and attention seeking, the sworn enemy of the older two who on account of my younger age and ‘big’ personality saw me as serious competition for more than my fair share of the limited parental attention that was on offer.
And so the games began, the sib V sib battle to be noticed, approved of and loved.
The fact is, all three of us grew up to be insecure, anxious and ocassionally depressed adults, but rather then blame our parents whose fault it was, we held each other wholly responsible. Each of us found the others to be relentless emotional competition. If one of us was successful, popular, happy or wealthy then the other two were fearful. When love is in deficit, like anything, it will be faught for.
Shutting down a hurtful relationship is by far the best way to protect yourself from it and we all tried. The trouble is siblings can't really get away from eachother. Cue the awkward, uncomfortable family dinners. So as we aged, we wished each other the worst of luck for our own sorry sakes, drifted apart and got on with our lives.
The sibling school of hard knocks is supposed to be a misty eyed place of endless fun and games peppered with harmless tiffs and spats. But unless your parents are doing a brilliant job, sibling relationships can easily deteriorate into something much more malevolent.
Growing up there are trivial events that might make you wish your siblings would vanish like being beaten at Monopoly, having your favourite jeans disappear, fighting over television channels or arguing over whose turn it is to load the dishwasher. But there are circumstances that can make you wish your siblings were gone for good, circumstances where sibling conflict ceases to be trivial and becomes psychologically damaging, scarring and harmful.
1. Parental Fvouritism
It’s not supposed to exist, and most parents would deny it does, but in reality it’s common enough to be normal. Recent research by Sociologist Jill Sutor has shown that in as many as two thirds of families parents exhibit favourites. And while they deny it and some try to hide it, the children are well aware of who is the favourite and who is not.
Parental favouritism was rife even flaunted in our family. Our mother considered her first born son to be so remarkable he was literally going to change the world. So despite her professed enthusiasm for feminism, the message was clear in our home, “Girls, your brother is your intellectual, artistic, creative superior, get used to it.” He was given the lions share of attention, expectations, approval and parental resources, and in his late teens was openly talked about as a genius. His chores were limited despite our protestations and when he left school and entered the real world his achievements became the focus of us all. We younger sisters trotted around after him, picking up leftover scraps of parental attention where we could and forever living in his shadow.
But our family was by no means unusual in this regard, in fact quirks aside, we were almost normal. Parental favouritism plays out differently in each family but the results are the same: favoured children receive greater attention, support and closeness, even food, clothes, material comforts, and educational or vocational opportunities are metered out unfairly. In some cases parents don't try to hide it "Your brother is special" it's sometimes used as a weapon "Why can't you be more like your sister" to punish the unfavoured, in other cases it's 'hidden' or disguised. The trouble is, kids know.
For the favoured or ‘Golden Child’ growing up under a glowing spotlight can have a positive effect, giving the child an inflated sense of self importance and pumped up self-esteem. Favoured children can do very well on the back of the extra attention but this status can bring with it an overwhelming need to succeed and overly high expectations that are difficult to fulfill. The outcome for the favoured can be a sense of failure, of never being good enough and they can buckle under the pressure.
For the least favourite child or children the message is clear, “You are less worthy” and the negative effect on self-esteem, self worth, mood and ability is profound and life changing.
The link between how children see their abilities and their ability to succeed is very powerful so parental expectations can be self-fulfilling playing out at school, in careers and even relationships later in life. Research indicates that less favoured children suffer long term clinical effects including anxiety, depression and low self esteem lasting well into adulthood.
Perhaps the most dmaging part of parents playing favourites is in the resolution of conflict. Living in a home where punishment is handed out unjustly adversely affects all children equally, the favoured and the scapegoat.
In our family the support and attention lavished on my brother swelled his ego and drove him to great achievements. After struggling in his teens his career took off in his twenties, driven by self belief and the unswerving belief he was destined for fame and fortune. He tried his hand at music and played in a band, then worked at an art gallery and hung out with famous artists, finally he pushed his way into the movie industry. With every success my mother beamed. " I just want to be proud of him." she said to me one day as her dreams were being fulfilled, he seemed unstoppable. Then one day it all ended. It was like he’d been balancing on a hire wire and suddenly lost his nerve. He struggled on for 20 years drinking, taking drugs and self-destructing until last year when he took his own life.
In stark contrast, my sister and I grew up not having any nerve to lose. Both of us struggled with low self esteem and anxiety as far back as I can remember. For each of us life’s journey was climbing out of the hole we'd been buried in, a slow steady recovery from an emotionally callace childhood. Each of us found and married good partners and started families of our own and used our own parenting as a means to heal ourselves. Being a good parent can be a vicarious experience, revelatory, cathartic and self-healing. Caring for your child makes you realise what you missed: cheering at sports matches, beaming at musical performances or just being there when children come home from school or camp.
When my brother died my sister and I wept through the little ceremony we’d put together to celebrate his life. Neither of us was on speaking terms with him before he passed and yet the day we cremated his body we felt his loss bitterly. My sister hadn’t spoken to him much in ten years and I had stopped two years before. The circumstances are complicated but the cause is simple, sibling rivalry, the result of parental favouritism.
2. Sibling Rivalry
Bringing up siblings without rivalry is like trying to tame an immutable law of nature. You can temper it, quash it or bury it, but you cannot beat it and that is why for me it’s the second great reason you might have wished your siblings would disappear.
Parents who deliberately have more than one child do so to give the first a 'friend' and companion for life. Someone to share experiences from go to wo. so they can become rivals tussling and bickering their way to a well balanced adulthood. Isn’t sibling rivalry what the sibling school of hard knocks is really all about? It’s a preparation for life, a microcosm of the big wide world, a rehearsal. It’s about learning that everything you cherish is fair game; material possessions, personal space, privacy and even friends. Everything must be negotiated and fought for, even the all important love and attention of your parents. But along the way you will learn to share, negotiate and sacrifice. You will learn that you are not the centre of the universe and that team work is powerful. Job done. Right?
The trouble is the arrival of a sibling is rarely a happy occasion for the first born or subsequent born children. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that when your baby brother or sister is carried in the door your life has changed forever and not in a good way. Some parents help their older children to overcome this natural sense of displacement and it can happen, but for others it never goes away.
The trouble is sibling rivalry isn’t necessarily a petty irritation, it’s a daily source of conflict, anxiety and stress as siblings compete for vital resources: food at the table, space in the home, parental affection, their own way. But this enforced sharing isn’t just a snatch and grab, it’s a race for better grades, trophies on the sports field, friends and accolades. Who is the smartest, fastest, most popular?
The stakes are high, the highest. Parental approval is everything to a child. It’s not rational, it’s primal, and it takes a parent with all their faculties to counter it. A parent who is never there, or stressed at work or struggling with a divorce or worrying about money or blinded by their own favouritism, can’t do it well and unchecked sibling rivalry can make home life stressful even damaging.
Living with someone who feels the need to punish you for being born is stressful. I know, my big brother used a three pronged strategy to get back at me for being alive: judging, physically hurting and unfettered competition. It worked. I felt punished. His behaviour towards me couldn’t have been further from the protective, loving, fun stereotype of the TV ‘big brother.’
I get it. Older siblings resent younger siblings coming along. They resent them inhabiting a space that was once theirs to rule. They resent having to look after them, and chaperone them, be responsible for them. They resent their crying and attention seeking baby behaviour, and fair enough. Who wouldn’t resent being pushed from a centre stage you were really enjoying. I would too.
But the younger siblings can create their own havoc. I drove my older sister crazy when we were growing up. In the daily battle for limited attention I fought hard and with my brother already in first place, I was determined not to come last. I now realise that living with me must have been unbearable. She got her revenge. In her teen years she transformed into a beautiful young woman and my brother openly (briefly) doted on her. Snap.
A friend of my son’s is the younger of two boys. When he was six his big brother told him bluntly “I don’t like you.” Seven years later he still doesn’t so they live together but don’t talk. The hurt is a daily routine, the stress is taking its toll on them both.
The third and most serious reason to wish your siblings would vanish is bullying. According to a study by the US Centre for Disease Control, a third of children have experienced the sort of sustained violence, teasing and verbal abuse from a sibling that were it from anyone else would be considered bullying requiring intervention.
Clinical psychologist John V Caffaro author of ‘Sibling Abuse Trauma’ found that, “Sibling violence is by far the most common form of family violence, occurring four to five times as frequently as spousal or parental child abuse.”
Another study published in Pediatrics magazine found that “A Comparison of sibling versus peer aggression generally showed that sibling and peer aggression independently and uniquely predicted worsened mental health.”
I can remember being bullied by my bother. I remember him pinning me down under a bean bag and ‘tickling’ me. His fingers were like steel as he pushed them deep into my abdomen burrowing and twisting. It wasn’t tickling which implies softness, even laughter, it was hard, violent. He was four years older than me, bigger, male, stronger. But his real power was his tongue, he could be vicious. And his eyes, his gaze so judgmental, so cruel. There is no recourse, no complaining, you have to laugh it off. Unfortunately laughing it off doesn’t negate the damage being done.
Dieter Wolke Professor at the Department of Psychology and Warwick Medical School warns that “Being bullied is not a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up; it has serious long-term consequences.
All types of bullying whether mild or severe adversely affect mental health leading to increased levels of anxiety, depression and even suicidal tendencies.
Of course parents are to blame when sibling bullying goes unchecked. They are either absent, or distracted. Perhaps they see it as harmless, even normal.
Luckily as we get older and form our own families we have power and choices. I don’t have to wish my siblings would go away, I can make it happen. And I’ve made sure my son will never be teased, bullied or beaten by a sibling. That he’ll never have to fight for a fairness that will never come. That his home will be a sanctuary, a place of calm and peace where he can replenish, repair and regroup. A place of love. I made sure he was an only child.
3. Birth Order
Unfortunately the my experience with the first born is all too common. A growing body of research points to the fact that parents commonly treat their first born differently from those who come along later. The first born is taken more seriously as a student, given more chance of succeeding and generally thought of as smarter. They are pushed into more intellectual pursuits and careers that are more professional like lawyers and doctors. It's proof that battling parental favouritism isn't going to be easy.