Wright Foundation | October 22, 2019

Dealing with Adult Sibling Rivalry

Adult sibling rivalry is alive and well in most families.

Think sibling rivalry ends when you’re a kid? Think again! Adult sibling rivalry is very common. Here’s how to address competition among brothers and sisters.

All you need to do to start recognizing adult sibling rivalry is to hear the criticisms many siblings have for one another when they talk about their brother or sister.

And the complaints go on. Sometimes, we may feel so frustrated by our adult brothers and sisters that we want to avoid spending time with them or our parents.

If you’re feeling the pangs of adult sibling rivalry, here’s how to get it out in the open and address your feelings. You may even work it out…like adults.

Acknowledging Adult Sibling Rivalries

A significant element of sibling rivalry in families is the idea parents should “never have favorites.” In fact, this mythology is so ingrained in many of is, it’s difficult, even painful to admit. Most parents won’t want to identify any sign of favoritism.

But if you want to know who’s the “favorite daughter” or “the good son,” ask the kids. Chances are, every member of the family can immediately identify Mom or Dad’s favorite (and it may or may not be the same person).

This idea that there are no favorites and we’re all on an equal footing plays into the family mythology and rules about what you do and don’t say within families. There’s a tendency to keep these truths unspoken because they’re often painful to discuss. There are family beliefs that people are fragile, and rivalries or favoritism is damaging to the siblings or their relationship.

As most of us know, the favorite child still exists, whether we acknowledge it or not. Leaving it unspoken may even make the adult sibling rivalry stronger and more damaging.

I’ve worked with many people on understanding their family dynamics, and often the most challenging area is examining family mythologies. Families are often an area we hold sacrosanct. Our relationship with our parents, brothers, and sisters, has been building since we were born. It forms the very basis of our identity and who we are.

That’s why people often get lost in their family rules and beliefs. The rules are so ingrained in their identity that it’s hard to pinpoint them or see the forest for the trees. This is often where an outside perspective is helpful. Discuss your family dynamic with another sibling, an aunt, uncle, or family friend. They will offer insight into the patterns you may be failing to identify. This insight will really help you dig down into these beliefs and understand how your family rules might affect what you can and cannot say.

Everyone Has Different Roles in a Family

Another way to examine adult sibling rivalry is to look at who’s competing with who for attention. Siblings to get different roles—one is the earnest do-gooder, one is the rebel, one is the prodigal son or daughter.

One way to start the discussion is to say, “let’s not confuse ourselves. No matter how many of us there are in the family, there are still favorites.”

Now, Mom’s favorite child or Dad’s favorite may not be the son or daughter most like them. In fact, Mom may feel frustrated by her daughter because they’re too similar. Dad may feel a higher affinity for the son who’s creative when another son followed in his footsteps as a businessman. Parents often appreciate the traits they wish they possessed or those qualities “proving” the effectiveness of their parenting.

If you want to clear the air, it’s important to accept everyone has favorites and it’s perfectly okay!

Because Mom or Dad has a favorite (and especially if you aren’t the favorite), does it mean they don’t love you? No! In most cases, they love you differently. Like it or not, there are favorites. Mom and Dad won’t love each child equally. In fact, we don’t know how to measure love, and to quantify it is a ridiculous pursuit.

Start talking honestly with each other and start getting honest with yourself. Look at your feelings about the fact that there are favorites in the family. How does it feel to know you’re the favorite? How does it feel to know you aren’t?

To get a visual picture of your family dynamic, we often ask students to draw their family relationship map. Draw your family with mom and dad at the top. Siblings come in at level two. Between each person, there is a relationship line. What does the line look like? How is each person connected, and how are they disconnected? Where are the barriers?

Instead of fighting the idea of favoritism, let the idea of favoritism contribute to the honesty and reality of your relationship. Unless you were an only child, you were likely competing with a sibling in some regard. It just happens. Certain family members will “click” while others will clash.

Family Dynamics Change Over Time

Growing up with my parents, we knew I was my mom’s favorite. My sister was my dad’s favorite. When we got older, my sister and mother became closer. Eventually, I would say she passed me up as Mom’s favorite.

The dynamics of our family relationships are often fluid. They may change over time and as situations change. Spouses may play a role in your connection with your parents as well as your brothers and sisters. Marriages, divorces, illness, children, and many other factors are incorporated into our family dynamics, even as we grow older.

Think of what your family looked like when you were very young. Chances are, you were born into a family that evolved into a different entity over the years. Perhaps when you were born, your parents were married, and you were the oldest. As time passed, your parents divorced and remarried. Maybe your parents stayed married, but they had more children. For those kids, family relationships look different.

Older siblings often complain they can’t believe what younger siblings “got away with” or that parents were tougher on them. Younger siblings may complain their older brother or sister got to stay out later or try things first. Parenting styles, attitudes, and comfort levels shift over the years.

There are mixed emotions in any family. We have colliding yearnings to be the favorite or to be the most liked. We may want to reinforce our identity as the “rebel,” the “good girl,” the “smart one,” or even “the screwup.” Because these roles are ingrained into our identity, they are tough to overcome.

Let’s stop these illusions and myths by acknowledging the truth. Simply because there are favorites and different connections, doesn’t mean there isn’t an affinity and appreciation for each member of the family.

Rather than competing for the most love, what if we work on strengthening the connections we share and appreciating our positive qualities?

Family connections are built on engagement and truth. How do we see each member of our family for who they really are? What is our brother or sister yearning for? How will we meet them in their truth?

If you want to get past adult sibling rivalry, accept that each person in the family will experience different connections and get along in different ways. Put the truth out in the open and then forge ahead to strengthen your relationship with your family members in the here and now. Speak honestly and openly about these family mythologies you are living under and start to appreciate who you each are as independent adults.

While everyone might not get along equally or connect on the same level, you may discover new and exciting aspects of your adult siblings (and parents). These discoveries you may have never realized because you were too busy competing for a spot as the favorite. Be honest and open about where each person is now, not where you were growing up.

For more on building your relationships, please visit the Wright Foundation. Join us for an upcoming More Life Training, where we’ll explore the mythologies that may be holding you back. We’re also happy to offer our courses for download at a special introductory price. Don’t miss this opportunity to learn about getting more satisfaction by living a life you love.

The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.