Brothers and Sister - An Understated Influence?

This article considers whether the importance of the role played by siblings in individual development has been understated in contemporary counselling work.

The recent challenges faced by the Milibrand brothers in vying with each other for leadership of the Labour party became front page news.  That was in part due to the unexpected outcome of that contest but it may also be that competition between siblings is something which many people can identify with. The fallout from this particular sibling rivalry was unusual in having political implications but interactions between siblings can affect many families and not just for those who aspire to high political office.

There are certainly implications for the counselling world.  Many different counselling modalities are practised but most recognise the potential importance of the family in impacting on the development of the individual.  There is usually a specific focus on the effect of parenting on emotional growth and this is reflected in the frequent use of terminology relating to good or bad parenting experiences.

Yet this emphasis on the parental figures tends to overshadow the important role that siblings can also have in the emotional development of members of the family.  Issues surrounding brothers and sisters may surface in family therapy but it is now less usual to find references in works on individual therapy.  The impact of siblings was identified in early psychoanalysis with Freud referring to the potential consequences of sibling rivalry although his concern was perhaps on potential Oedipal jealousies. Writers such as Winnicott have also acknowledged the value of understanding the impact of siblings (1) but in contemporary counselling work that focus now seems uncommon.

Parents clearly hold much importance for the opening phase of life but the realities of age and mortality inevitably means that most children will spend a longer period of their life in some form of contact with a sibling than with their parents. In addition to the time spent in the family home, there other activities and friendships in common which can also extend contact long into adulthood if not for the whole of life.

The relationship between brothers and sisters can bring joy and harmony or anger and discord – or perhaps a mixture of the two. That confusion of emotion may be reflected in what Bowlby refers to as feelings of ‘ intense ambivalence’ (2).  Although one should always be alert to the risk of stereotyping, sibling interactions can provide readily identifiable patterns of influence and the following are well known examples.  

The first born spends the opening months of life in a monopolistic position as far as the attention of her or his parents are concerned.  Care and support systems are usually focussed on the one specific small individual. In the event of the child being the first grandson or granddaughter, that attention can be amplified manifold by doting grandparents.  Some may see such a concentration of affirmation as providing the grounding for the emergence of a particularly secure sense of self. Others may fear the emergence of an inflated ego with early symptoms of self-aggrandisement.

The arrival of the second sibling inevitably threatens the primacy of the first born. This event can have an impact even before the actual birth as the mother becomes aware of the pregnancy. Jealousy exists before it is evidenced. It is axiomatic that the first born is then albeit perhaps temporarily, relegated to a secondary role at the time of delivery. The success of the efforts to negate that impact may affect the emotional development of the senior sibling despite that initial solo place on the parental stage.  Michael Jacobs writes of the challenges evoked by having to share a parent with a new sibling particularly if the first born is not yet ‘independent of mother’. (2)

The second child is also immediately faced with some daunting challenges.  He or she is thrust into a competitive arena where there is already one louder and more sophisticated voice.  There is a pathway established and the second child will be expected to walk that route. A unique individual is continuously if unconsciously compared to the first arrival. There will always be conjecture as to how much of this is readily apparent to the second child but some realisation of contrast and evaluation is inevitable even if at the unconscious level.  If there are subsequent children the second born is also at risk of becoming the almost mythical middle child. Not old enough to be the senior but too senior to be the baby of the family, with an on-going challenge of identity.

The arrival of successive siblings continues to have an effect. The newest arrivals are faced with an immediate and daunting struggle to find a secure place which will allow their voice to be heard within the family structure. The forging of a personal identity can take greater effort amidst a greater number and there is also the potential for confusion over the role of others. In a larger family, care can more easily be dispensed by other actors apart from the two prime maternal and paternal figures. The presence of other siblings particularly those who are some considerable years older, can create a parade of semi parental figures with the ability to dispense wisdom and comfort or scorn and coldness. For the very young infant a profusion of aunts, elder sisters and grandmothers can provide a variation on the maternal figure.  Similarly paternal alternatives abound with elder brothers, uncles and grandfathers standing alongside the father figure. 

That may weaken a sense of attachment to the primary care giver and this could impact on the strength of those attachment bonds later in life. It may perhaps prove be easier to turn from one future source of love and support to another if that pattern has already been established in early life.

The profusion of siblings within a family unit can carry positive implications. Encouragement may be given to the early development of social skills as the child forms relationships with brothers and sisters. This can assist the infant to experience differential patterns of interaction with others of varying ages. That could encourage the emergence of greater confidence, drive and self-sufficiency.   

Having commenced this article with a political reference it is interesting to note for example that of the last ten prime ministers, a job which in current times demands excellent communication skills, only one out of the last ten office holders were first born.  The other nine had all been forced to deal with older siblings during their early childhood and that pattern has even continued albeit narrowly with the successful Milliband.

Some second or third born children may however face a very different experience. The existence of older siblings may create adverse situations which can have a detrimental impact on the development of self-esteem for some children. The eldest child who is more sophisticated in his or her use of language, may either deliberately or unconsciously help to create feelings of inadequacy amongst the younger siblings.  The attempt to complete with those who are stronger, may also impact adversely on the development of a physically confident self.

There are a multitude of other potential issues at play for siblings involving power and rivalry which can impact on future development.  There is the opportunity for early exposure to concerns around gender, sexual identity and understanding of sexual differences. The extent to which these complex issues are openly addressed or perhaps instead discussed in a more covert and hidden way, may provide a pointer as to how the future adult is prepared to deal with sensitive concerns around sex and relationships.  The seeds of guilt can be as easily sown as the seeds of envy and jealousy. The younger sister who sees an idolised older brother return home with a sophisticated girlfriend may experience the first pangs of jealous feelings which may resurface later in life.

Sibling relationships also allow for an early experience of loss and detachment.  The leaving home of an elder sister or brother can be difficult for the child left behind. It may be the first occasion on which an albeit temporary detachment from a significant other has occurred.  The loss of a parent may however be softened in larger families by the continued existence of brothers and sisters who provide family continuity.

The existence of other siblings allows for opportunities for complex interactions with figures who may be seen as rivals or substitutes for parental figures.  If there is a considerable age gap, the older siblings can be seen as shadow parents against whom the younger child will strive for independence whilst simultaneously also craving approval. The existence of so many opportunities for emotional workouts could suggest that the child who interacts with siblings is likely to have a stronger and more robust emotional self than the single child. This suggests a greater sense of self sufficiency. 

Yet the only child gains from the monopolistic call on his or her parent’s affections and attentions. In some cases this may encourage a sense of omnipotence given that the single child can indeed be for ever the centre of the parental world.    This contrasts with the challenges which the one child of many will inevitably face trying to be heard above the noise of completing claims. Some children may feel that their voice has never been properly heard and that sense of injustice and unfairness may last for a lifetime as siblings continue to age.  The youngest may always feel as though they are indeed treated as the baby of the family and this feeling may persist long after parents have died.  

Siblings can also contain or alter the impact of the primary parental figures.  This is apparent both when children vie for the affection of parents during adolescence and may also continue long after the death of the two parental figures.  Family stories and myths can be re-examined, reinvented, retold and reshaped by conversations and reflections between brothers and sisters which may continue from adolescence long into adulthood and beyond.

Given this myriad of possibilities, the absence of reference to sibling issues in much contemporary individual therapy work – and that includes theory, research and writings –  is rather surprising. It may be that the emphasis on the maternal and paternal figures has demanded a focus which has left siblings in the shadows in theory as well as in practice. We know that it is not always easy to challenge or push past parental figures but perhaps on some occasions, it may be helpful to our clients if we encourage them to look beyond the parental shadow.

As counsellors we are concerned to help clients develop and mould a perspective which allows them to both understand and make best use of childhood experiences and narratives.  We may not be our brother’s or our client’s keeper but within the counselling room we should recognise that we may sometimes unknowingly take on the persona of a sibling. That realisation may have an effect on what goes on within the therapy room.

Our challenge as therapists is to allow the client the space to explore their emotional world. It is that very space and freedom which may have been crowded out in the family home as a result of interactions with fellow siblings.  The counselling room provides a safe opportunity for the client to revisit and explore the implications of those sibling relationships on personal development. 

Perhaps that opportunity of exploration is also one which may be taken up in one day in North London particularly if there is an acknowledged need to defuse the impact of a certain leadership election. At least a general talk out in Primrose Hill may be a better way for one political family, of working through fraternal disputes than resorting to the rather more robust Cain and Abel approach!  It may be however that politics will always demand a slightly more aggressive response than can be provided by analysis and reflection – whether the issue under discussion is political philosophy or sibling rivalry!

(1)  D W Winnicott   Playing and Reality

(2)  John Bowlby    The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds

(3)  Michael Jacobs    The Presenting Past

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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