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What Role do Sibling Struggles Play in Adult Relationships?

What Role do Sibling Struggles Play in Adult Relationships?Were you the winner or the loser in your sibling dynamic?

Many parents believe that sibling rivalry is healthy, natural and unavoidable. There are many causes of sibling rivalry (age, developmental stage, personality), but a main cause is the need for power, attention or protection from parents.

Children, as young as infants, find comfort in routine and predictability. The family dynamic is a source of familiarity and certainty, including the ways in which parents react to each child during sibling struggles.

When one sibling picks a fight, he usually knows what type of reaction it will trigger from the parents. In that moment, the aggressor is seeking the feeling that reaction provides — negative attention if he is punished or power that he succeeded as the dominator if the parents take a hands-off approach.

The parents’ reaction to the innocent sibling, either sympathetic or hands-off, also creates a feeling — that of the victim. If the parents coddle the innocent child, she gets attention and protection when she is victimized. If the parents ignore the situation, the innocent child feels unprotected by the parents and holds resentment as the victim. For both children, attention, power or protection comes when they participate in their role as winner or loser.

Although this pattern of sibling rivalry might seem common and expected, the way in which parents react to each child’s behavior might play a large part in identity development and affect their behaviors and feelings about relationships as adults.

Was your role that of intimidator, brown-noser or aggressor? Or did you play the victim, tattle-tale or baby? It is no surprise that as adults, we revert back to our childhood roles when we are with our families, but do we carry our childhood roles into relationships outside our family? Do our problems in adult relationships (marriage, work, friendship) stem from the patterns created during sibling battles?

It is inevitable that children will take on different roles in the family. These roles create balance within the family and allow each child to receive attention from their parents without direct competition. However, it is important for parents to be aware of what can create these roles and the impact they may have on the child’s feeling about themselves and the world around them.

As the first relationships a child will encounter, sibling relationships play a major role in choices children make relating to friends and will affect the type of relationships they create throughout their lives. If one sibling constantly feels victimized or is always the dominator, it can lock both winner and loser into forced identity patterns which will continue throughout life with friends, spouses and colleagues.

How did your sibling relationships affect you and your relationships?

What Role do Sibling Struggles Play in Adult Relationships?

Jill Ceder, MSW, JD

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APA Reference
Ceder, J. (2018). What Role do Sibling Struggles Play in Adult Relationships?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 13 Mar 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.