How to Handle the Stress of Adult Sibling Rivalry

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Sibling rivalry isn't always outgrown in childhood, however; in some cases, it only intensifies as time passes. While people often think of sibling rivalry as a childhood phenomenon, adult sibling rivalry is a common phenomenon in which adult siblings struggle to get along, argue, or are even estranged from one another.

If you feel strained in your relationship with your family because your parents favor another sibling or another sibling’s family, you may be surprised to find that you’re not alone. While most parents love their adult children, it’s surprisingly common for a parent to be closer to, or more supportive of, particular adult offspring over others, sparking sibling rivalry.

One study found that more than a third of adults between 18 and 65 had apathetic or hostile relationships with their siblings.

What the Research Says

Research has shown that parenting plays a significant role in contributing to adult sibling rivalry. While parents may strive to remain unbiased when it comes to their kids, favoritism is actually very common.

Research has found:

  • Parents often feel closer to one child. According to one study by researchers from Cornell University, which included interviews with 275 mothers in their 60s and 70s with at least two living adult children, and surveys of 671 offspring of the women, 70% of mothers could specify a child to whom they felt closest. Interestingly, only 15% of interviewed offspring felt that there was equal treatment by their mothers.
  • Favoritism affects mental health. Other research shows that parental favoritism negatively affects the mental health of all of the children in the family, either by creating resentment in the less-favored children, stress from high parental expectations for the favored child, strained sibling relationships, and other negative consequences. 
  • The impact of this favoritism can be lasting. Another study found that perceived maternal favoritism could have a long-lasting effect on sibling relationships. Recollections of this perceived favoritism in childhood actually had a greater impact than current favoritism on sibling relationships.

So if you feel that you're less favored by your parents and that pain is affecting you in adulthood, you're not alone.

Explanations for Adult Sibling Rivalry

Sibling relationships are complex and influenced by a variety of factors including genetics, life events, gender, parental relationships, and experiences outside of the family.

Parental favoritism is often cited as a source of adult sibling rivalry. It’s also common for people to feel that a sibling is or ‘has always been’ favored by a parent, even if this may not be recognized or acknowledged by the rest of the family. While it hurts to be the less favored ‘child’, it’s human nature for some people to be drawn together for various reasons, such as:

  • Geographical proximity (your sister who lives closer to mom may understandably spend more time with her)
  • Shared personality features (your dad and brother think the same way, and thus understand each other more easily)
  • Other factors within or beyond your control (perhaps your world view doesn't match your parents' as closely as that of one of your siblings, and they resent it, consciously or unconsciously)

Research shows that parents are more ambivalent toward children who are not married, less educated, and share fewer of their values. 

While this can be human nature, it stings more when coming from a parent, as we think of our parents as people who are supposed to love and support us unconditionally, and we may still see them as a little greater than human (a viewpoint leftover from childhood).

How to Cope

Whatever the reason, if you find that one or more parents is favoring another sibling over you, either by having a closer relationship with your sister’s kids, bragging more about your brother’s accomplishments, paying more attention to your sister, or always taking your brother’s side in a disagreement, it can make for a stressful family gathering with raw feelings that can be easily hurt.

You can read about some ways to cope with sibling rivalry as an adult.

Don’t Take It Personally

Understand that your parent may not ‘love’ the other sibling more, they just feel closer or more invested in their lives, for whatever reason. They may not even be aware of it, and most likely not doing it to hurt your feelings.

If they are actively trying to hurt you as 'punishment' for not being more the person they'd like you to be, perhaps it's best that you're not closer.

Find Support Elsewhere in Your Life

Find supportive people in your life to provide the love, acceptance, and approval you may not get from your parents as much as you’d like. While we may not be born into families of people who think like us and share our values, there are many people in the world that can provide the support that our family members may be unable to give. 

Find a support system that offers unconditional love and invest your energy there.

Don’t Perpetuate Sibling Rivalry

Don’t compete with your siblings, and don’t blame them for being favored. Even if they’re going out of their way to remain the favorite, you can’t blame them for wanting their parent’s love and approval. Just accept that your relationship with your parents is yours and try to keep it separate from sibling relationships.

Accept the Reality of the Situation

You’ll also feel better if you accept that you may not get as much support and approval from parents as you want, and that’s okay. If you don’t come at them from a place of need, you will actually have more personal power. It may be difficult to get into this frame of thought, but you’ll feel better after you do. Start by noticing all that you do get from them, and valuing that. Also, you can notice everything that you get from other areas of your life, and realize that your family of origin is only one part of your life, and it doesn't have to be the most important part.

Invest In Your Own Family

Finally, if you have a committed relationship or family of your own, you can focus on providing that which you’d like to be getting from your family of origin. Focus on what you share with them, and on what you can provide to yourself in your own life, and you’ll be better able to accept familial quirks.

Get Additional Support If You Need It

Given that there can be lasting negative effects of parental favoritism and sibling rivalry that last into adulthood if you feel significant stress from this situation and you feel you need extra support in managing this stress, don't be afraid to reach out to a professional. There are many qualified therapists who deal with family-of-origin issues like these, and they can help quite a bit with the stress. You can also adopt general stress management habits to lessen the overall stress load and make it easier to cope.

Talk to your doctor if you feel like you need help coping with relationship stress or consult a mental health professional in your area.

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