Updated: Feb 19, 2020
Sibling conflict seems to be one of those parenting topics that everyone struggles with. One empirical article pointed out that the only siblings that tend to avoid competition and merciless ridicule towards one another are the ones where there has been a dire situation such as the loss of a parent or a parent’s substance abuse, which seems to require a common survival. Siblings need adversity to bond them together.
The sibling relationship has been notoriously overlooked in studies on family systems even though the sibling relationship is generally recognized as the longest lasting relationship in a person’s life. Siblings have a history of shared knowledge and experience and this unique dynamic can impact each other’s behavior and development. However, until recently the role that siblings play in influencing each other's lives hasn't been a popular topic in psychological research. Psychologists have chosen to focus on the influences they see as more pertinent such as caretakers, peers and genetics.
Why hasn’t this historically difficult relationship been addressed in literature? It is difficult to focus the sibling relationship in therapy because so many sibling dyads are unwilling to come to therapy as they become consumed with their own adult lives. Also, siblings tend to grow further apart after their teenage years and don’t start to bond again until late adulthood.
Suggestions for therapy with siblings include finding a balance between addressing past wounds and also moving forward. The goal for therapy with siblings is to identify feelings of hurt and be open to listening to your sibling’s perspective. However, there is also work to be done as it relates to letting go of an idealized sibling bond, which can be done in individual therapy. A large part of the healing process may need to happen on a personal level before some of these interpersonal difficulties can be appropriately expressed. There are long lasting effects of trauma, depression and grief that can subsist from one's early family system that can affect interpersonal relationships as an adult, whether that is with a sibling or other friendships. Therapy can provide a safe place to share these feelings and work through feelings of loneliness, inadequacy and a lack of connection with others.