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The Inside Track on Your Child's Sibling Ties

Various factors can affect brother-sister relationships

The Inside Track on Your Child’s Sibling Ties

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Brothers and sisters want to work things out. Though, no two children have the same growing-up experience.

While sibling relationships are usually the longest we experience, they certainly wax and wane over the decades. National Sibling Day on April 10 is a good time to think about these bonds, and a new book, Adult Sibling Relationships, is food for thought. Coauthor Geoffrey L. Greif is a University of Maryland School of Social Work professor, the youngest of three siblings and the father of two 30-something daughters. So he comes to the topic with extensive personal and professional experience.

Greif urges parents not to be anxious about adult children relationships that are less than ideal. "There are so many things going on in those relationships, which means there are many opportunities not to get it right," he says. "You've got parents and siblings, and spouses and children, and grandchildren and cousins. It takes just one or two bad things to screw it up."

Most parents want to see their children at least get along. And there's a bonus if they do: Research shows that the better siblings get along, the better care they will take of their parents when the time comes.

Still, Greif warns parents not to micromanage the sibling relationship, especially among younger millennials. They need to establish their own independent lives. "Children in their 20s are, in effect, trying to break away from the family and establish their own circles of friends as well as careers," he says.

Greif also cautions against being overly protective of one adult child among other siblings. One mom, for example, tried to shield a college-age daughter from an older brother's harsh questions about her career choices. Greif suggests that the daughter might have been better served to hear the criticism. "She's likely capable of defending herself and needs to figure out how to handle conflicts."

Sometimes the tables are turned, and parents ask a child to play peacemaker with an uncommunicative sibling. Greif recalls a situation in which a father kept asking one daughter to check in about how another child was behaving and to get back to him. "The result is sometimes that the children can become further estranged from the parents," he says.

Other key points from Greif:

  • No two children have the same growing-up experience. Variables from birth order to emotional dispositions and physical needs impact how children are raised. Also, changes in parents' financial resources and the quality of their marriage will influence children differently over time.
  • Perceived favoritism affect relationships. Growing up — and even in adulthood — children receive varying amounts of attention, discipline, affection and resources from parents. Sometimes this is favoritism; sometimes it's simply circumstances. However, the perception can impact how siblings feel about one another. Also the labels such as "the smart one" or "the devilish kid" often stick into adulthood and can cause resentment.
  • Lifestyle differences can affect relationships. Careers, money, home locations, spouses and extended family, children or no children, and other factors can enhance or strain adult sibling relationships.

But the good news is that sibling bonds often improve over time. "Despite competition for attention and affection, differences in abilities, age gaps, gender, home environment and random traumatic events, siblings usually get along," Greif writes. "They have a great deal of resilience and hope. Brothers and sisters want to work things out."

Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. An NYU journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at Mothering21.