Siblings shape attitudes

Siblings shape attitudes

September 2nd, 2010 by Tabi Upton in Life Entertainment

My brother has my power drill. He's had it all summer, and I want it back. I told him to bring it to me but, so far, nothing.

I am holding hostage the boots he left at my house recently. Such nice sturdy boots. I will exchange them for the drill.

I told him I have his stuff and I'll wait him out. He laughed. We've met before to exchange stuff. With a knowing smile he always has an excuse for why the power drill is not with him. Now it's become a power struggle, a test of wills. I must be cunning. I must be a step ahead of him to win this standoff. (I told Daddy, and now my brother will be in trouble.)

Sibling relationships can be complicated. The irony is that my brother and I, both 30-somethings, have never gotten along better.

In talking to "onlies", what I call those individuals without siblings, I am often in utter wonder at their lives. I think they've effectively cut out at least 50 percent of the drama in a normal human life.

They seem so serene, so confident. They've never had to share the attention of their parents. They didn't have to fight for the respect of an older siblings or to be noticed in the midst of a swarm of other children. They didn't whine about who got more food, or any subtle differences in treatment from the parents.

Only children make up about 18 percent of the American population, however. The rest of us have brothers and sisters.

In a recent Psychology Today article, Dr. Judy Dunn, a developmental psychologist, reports that sibling relationships are children's first social and relational experiences and can actually shape their self-understanding for life. Sibling relationships tend to be highly emotionally charged, and each sibling can be intensely "sensitive to differences in affection, in warmth, in pride, in attention, and in discipline that parents dole out," she said.

Dunn's research has found that children, even before one year of age, exhibit a highly sophisticated social understanding. Interpretations that lead youngsters to feel they are getting the short end of the stick can have long-lasting effects, causing them to develop patterns of relating to others that continue well into adulthood.

The fact is that parents inevitably treat their children differently because children are just plain different. Perhaps communicating why the treatment is different for each child and reassuring them of the sameness of the parent's affection would help stabilize any feelings of insecurity. Either way, the competition experienced in childhood often gets coded into our personalities long-term.

Researchers believe that birth order is also a factor, as well as natural temperament, in how sibling relationships and even certain aspects of our personalities form.

First-borns can often be expected to keep the values of the family and even "parent" the younger siblings. Youngest children tend to be open to new ideas and are the type that transform culture. Middle children tend to get less attention than the oldest or youngest, and may struggle emotionally more than the other siblings.

Becoming aware of how childhood experiences with siblings and parents helped shape our emotional make up today can be a first step toward creating new patterns for our relationships and freeing up greater choices for our lives.

Tabi Upton, MA-lpc, is a counselor at CBI-Richmont Counseling Center. She is founder of, a counseling and self-help resource site. E-mail her at