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Holidays With Family: Repairing Sibling Relations

Unlike with Vegas, What Happens in Childhood does not stay in Childhood

As we approach November and the preparations for Thanksgiving we begin to reflect on some of the important life questions that the holiday season trigger. One of those big and concerning questions is “how will I be able to deal with my family for an entire weekend?”

Although the holiday season brings with it excitement and anticipation, many people report this time of year to be a time of stress and anxiety. In fact, in one of the most widely used stress measures, where people are scored based on the number of stress-triggering events that may have occurred in their life recently, experiencing the holiday season ranks high as a source of stress.

The preparations for the holidays including cooking, shopping, and potential traveling are all reasons for the heightened stress. But one of the common stress triggers that often overtake all other concerns is the anxiety involved with getting together with family members with whom we may have strained relationships.

Much has been written about dealing with in-laws over the holiday season, and rightly so - they could be a nuisance. However, a less discussed topic but one that is prominent in many families is strained sibling relationships. Adult siblings are not immune from similar dynamics that plague childhood sibling interactions. At the core, adult sibling disputes are a manifestation of unresolved childhood feelings. For example, sibling rivalry or jealously concerning achievement or success is often the underlying emotion in both childhood and adult sibling interactions. Parental favoritism is also often a salient feeling that exists in adults that can trigger harsh reactions between siblings. Although we may not say it out of our mouths for fear of sounding childish but if we are honest with ourselves we would admit that we often think “it’s not fair that you have that cool job and I don’t” or “why do you get such an awesome boyfriend and I don’t” or “why are your children so well behaved and mine are at not?” or “mom is making such a big deal about your new job, she always liked you better.” Thoughts and feelings that we had as children are still clear and present in our adult life as well. Unlike with Vegas, what happens in childhood does not stay in childhood. The difference may be in the way adults deal with these feelings. A child may take the feelings out by hitting his younger brother whereas adults engage in more passive-aggressive behaviors and later may spend the rest of the night complaining to a significant other or a spouse about the hideous brother or sister.

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Like many mental health and relationship issues, the first step in dealing with this problem is acknowledging that it exists. Adults often rationalize their behaviors with their siblings by blaming something the sibling did or blaming how the sibling acts without looking inward and seeking the true source of the negative feelings. When we are honest that our feelings towards our siblings are rooted in potential rivalry, jealousy, feelings of favoritism, or a combination of these feelings we permit ourselves to seek honest solutions to this problem. Working at improving sibling relationships is worth the effort. As I noted in past columns, positive sibling relationships have long lasting positive effects on our psychological and emotional well-being.

At this point you may be asking “so how do I go about overcoming feelings of rivalry, jealousy, and favoritism towards my sibling?”

Stay tuned…

Avidan Milevsky, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.

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