Adult Sibling Rivalry

Adult sibling rivalry traces back to well before Cain and Abel had their little kerfuffle. And for the most part, rivalry of the nonmurderous variety is normal and natural -- but that can be hard to remember as envy overtakes you when your parents mention your sister's talents for the 4 millionth time. Once you've grown up, how do you handle that enduring sibling rivalry? Dr. Susan Newman, a social psychologist who focuses on issues of parenting and family life, gave us some tips for getting over childhood grudges and repairing your relationship with your adult siblings.

Get to the root of it.
The root of sibling rivalry can be traced back to the moment when the second sibling is born and the first sibling is dethroned: Suddenly, the infant -- more helpless by definition -- arrives needing, and therefore receiving, extra attention from the parents. Sibling rivalry is the normal and widespread result of such unequal parental treatment -- the only way to avoid it completely is for parents to treat their children in exactly the same manner, "which is impossible to do since each child has a different need and personality," says Newman.

However, parents can significantly cut down on the breadth and scope of sibling friction by trying to treat all children fairly, avoiding typecasting (i.e., Bobby is the "smart one," and Jenny is the "pretty one"), and explaining differential treatment (why, for example, an older sister gets to stay up later, or a brother who has trouble with math gets more help with his homework). A 2001 study shows that sibling rivalry is strongest when children are between 10 and 15 because of heightened insecurity and uncertainty during that time (children are trying to find their places socially, academically and physically). But the patterns set in childhood often carry on to adulthood, where each child still tries to be top dog or prove themselves better than their siblings in some (or all) ways. You may try to always have a nicer car than your brother or to be a better cook or a better dresser. Though the most intense phase of sibling rivalry has passed, a sense of competition and envy may linger.

Look on the bright side.
And there is a bright side. Competition may be the sign of a healthy family -- some psychologists hypothesize that in sibling rivalries, both children feel confident enough to assert themselves. And healthy competition can lead you to better yourself: You may have worked hard to be a better runner than your sister, and now you finish marathons; or you may have wanted to be as good at science as your brother, and now you're a biologist. Sibling rivalry may have ultimately made you a better student, a better reader or a better athlete. Moreover, some types of sibling rivalry are fun. "For years, my older brother and I had a competition to see who could call first to wish my parents a happy holiday, and the other day he called to say, 'Happy New Year; I said it first,'" says Newman. "A lot of rivalries become fun family jokes over time."

Grow up.
Like most people closest to you, a brother or sister can do little things to set you off. However, once you reach adulthood, you must limit the infiltration and influence of sibling rivalry. Instead of always measuring yourself against someone else, concentrate on your own accomplishments and well-being. You may refuse to discuss topics that touch on a nerve.

Realize that other dynamics may also be at play: Family structures are complex and unique, and often family members like parents, aunts, uncles and cousins, can subconsciously stoke the flames of the rivalry -- maybe Auntie Rose, oblivious to your sensitivities, likes to remind you how you were always so flighty and artistic while your brother was the practical one.

Recognizing and ignoring (or altogether avoiding) their triggers can help you bypass destructive feelings and actions. Also remember that your perception of your status isn't necessarily truth: "If you talk to two children raised in same family who are now adults, they will remember things entirely differently," says Newman. For example, perhaps you imagined that your father favored your sister, and she was certain that you were Daddy's little girl. One thing is a fact: "You aren't children anymore so no more games," says Newman. "And rivalry is a game."

Talk about it.
Or don't -- it depends on the situation, according to Newman. "If you feel a discussion will set off sparks, or you're involved in a hotly contested, sensitive rivalry, steer clear of a discussion and move on," says Newman. But if you live near each other or your quotidian relationship is affected by these old conflicts, you may try and open conversation to clear the air and get a better understanding of each other.

Forgive and forget.
Cut your parents some slack: Parents may be imperfect, but they usually try their best to treat their children with equanimity. If you have children, you may want to acknowledge how hard it is to keep them from feeling an intense sense of competition. That way, you'll have a better idea of the challenges your parents faced. And while you're at it, give your siblings a break, too. Your brother cut your belt up 20 years ago; your mother went to your sister's ballet recital but not yours back in '83. "Forgive your sister for being a brat when she was 7," says Newman. "She's a perfectly lovely 28-year-old." People are not the same person at 45 that they were at four. Your competition, which was once about gaining your parents' affection, is now aimed at nothing in particular. "Rivalries are in your head," says Newman. "It doesn't make it any easier, but it does mean that if you can change the way you think, you can stop the rivalry."

Move toward the future and away from the past.
Instead of stewing over past grievances, think about how you'd like your future relationship with your siblings to be and then work toward making it so from your end. "The bottom line is that family is our most important product," says Newman. "These are the people we who will be there for us in times of stress and need and illness so it's not worth battling the rivalries as you get older."