Your relationships with your siblings could be some of the longest of your life
They grew up in a house in Ottawa’s then-suburban Riverview Park. The year was 1957 and four-year-old MaryAnn Harris remembered spending time with her siblings in what she called a “magical” setting, with “plenty of green space, forests and parks.
“My maternal grandparents had a cottage on the Clyde River, so we spent lots of time as a family, swimming, catching frogs, fishing and exploring the river,” says Harris, who continues to reside in the area with her husband. “My brothers were sports fanatics, so they’d throw the football around together. Jane, two years or so younger than I, was a fun and willing playmate though I may have lorded it over her a bit, as older siblings do. My brothers did the same to me, always teasing and playing tricks. My sister Lynn was my idol. She played a vital role in my rebellious teen years and kept me on track, as did my brother Jim.”
The Harris children were close back then, and today, living only within an hour-and-a-half of Ottawa, Lynn, 75, of Kazabazua, QC; Jim, 74, of Cantley, QC; Pat, 70, of Chelsea, QC; MaryAnn, 68; and Jane Stoness, 65, of Westport, ON – remain so.
“We still have strong ties to one another,” says Harris. “Our common love of wild places has kept us together. My sisters and I talk on the phone at least once a week and text more often. It’s not quite as frequent with my brothers, but we do speak on a regular basis. In the ‘before times,’ we saw one another quite often. We are one another’s best friends.”
According to Dr. Robyn Marquis, a clinical psychologist at the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute, sibling relationships are some of the most important of our lives. Not only are they among the longest relationships – it’s a lifespan in most cases, from infancy/toddlerhood through to older age – there is the potential of a special bond by having had a shared experience, Dr. Marquis adds. “Nobody else gets your family and the experience of being raised in your family than your sibling.”
Ottawa’s Inga Bohnekamp has a close relationship with her sister and brother. “The three of us did get along very well. We always had a lot of fun and got super creative with activities and games together, especially up there in Scandinavia when there were not many other kids around to play with.”
“Your siblings have usually grown up alongside you and have thus known you well for many years,” says Bohnekamp, a clinical psychologist and child and youth counsellor. “I know I can trust my siblings and count on them should there be an emergency or situation of crisis. And vice-versa.”
“Sibling relationships are important because they are some of our earliest relationships and we often share a common history or set of experiences with our siblings in our families of origin,” says Jonathan Schmidt, registered psychotherapist, registered marriage and family therapist, certified couple and family therapist and clinical manager with Family Services Ottawa. “Sibling relationships also represent our earliest opportunities to share, disrupt natural selfishness and develop the ability to see and respect others’ perspectives.”
Sibling relationships as children
Parul Shah describes the sibling relationship as “an extension of ourselves. Even though it may be the most important, it is also a complex relationship.” As children, a relationship depends how far apart siblings are in age, and gender can play a role in it as well, says Shah, an Ottawa and area psychotherapist and founder of Embracing Empowerment Counselling Services.
As children, sibling relationships tend to be more play-based, especially for kids closer in age, says Dr. Marquis. “Where there is an age-gap, (it is) common to see some caregiving take place. Also, (it is) common to move in and out of playing together, fighting together,” she says. Often, it is easier to repair difficulties and forgive when we are younger. Again, some of these issues will depend on the age gap between siblings, gender (relationships between sisters tend to be a bit different than brothers), and how parents support and encourage closeness/competition.
According to Dr. Marquis, having a sibling is a learning opportunity. Research shows that “sibling conflict offers opportunity to understand how to work through conflict, differences, sharing, teamwork, in a way that single children may not get to benefit from,” she says.
Sibling relationships as adults
As teenagers/adults, siblings can support each other through important milestones, including education, troubles with friends, challenges, stressors, jobs and starting their own families, says Dr. Marquis.
Like most relationships, the sibling relationship is ever-changing and depends on the quality of the relationship from childhood. “We tend to see closer bonds when kids are younger,” says Dr. Marquis. “As personalities emerge, siblings may have difficulties keeping the same bond due to more rigid personalities, lived experiences/challenges through adolescence and into adulthood, differences in levels of education and interests.”
“The development of sibling relationships is undoubtedly influenced by many things such as personalities, parenting styles, age spacing, culture, and life experiences, etc,” says Schmidt. “Siblings may make very different choices and grow apart. Hopefully, regardless of choices and lifestyles, siblings can continue to respect and love each other and spend quality time together, dealing with inevitable conflicts that come their way.”
Bohnekamp says she and her siblings “are all very supportive of one another and appreciate each other as a family.” It works – their relationship remains a close one, despite the physical distance between them. While Bohnekamp, now 39, is in Ottawa; her 38-year-old sister Berit, a physician, is in Switzerland; and 32-year-old Hendrick, a professional rowing coach, lives in Berlin along with their parents. “Whenever I travel to Berlin, the others do as well, so we all meet up at my parents’ home in order to spend a few days all together,” Bohnekamp says.
Unfortunately, not all siblings are so close as the Bohnekamps. “Pending on life circumstances, adult siblings can drift apart or grow closer,” says Shah. There are various reasons why: the lack of communication, misunderstanding, unresolved childhood trauma, not able to accept life choices to losing a parent or guardian, or simply, life itself.
Even if siblings weren’t close as children, there is always a chance they end up connecting, says Dr. Marquis. “There’s a shared sense of responsibility in some cases,” says Dr. Marquis. “As the siblings grow up and transition to parenting their own families or supporting their parents in older age or illness, this can strengthen their relationship or create a new opportunity for bonding as they find ways to support each other, repair old wounds, and establish new patterns of interaction—regardless of what used to be,” says Dr. Marquis.
Sibling relationships in the time of COVID-19
Life will be full of events that will either bring siblings closer, or farther apart. “Any life-defining milestone can bring siblings together or cause them to drift/break apart—always an opportunity for difficulties and push apart or to open a relationship up and bring closer together,” says Dr. Marquis.
For the Harris family, that life-changing event that cemented the family even more happened early in the children’s lives, when in the fall of 1953, their father, John, contracted polio at the age of 31 and was hospitalized for a year. Although he recovered, Harris remembers that “my heroine of a mother carried him, as well as the smallest of us, up and down those steep apartment stairs” where the family lived in Old Ottawa South. “As kids, we probably came to rely on one another more because of everything our parents were coping with.”=
Not even the events of the last year could separate these close siblings. “It nixed our get-togethers last Thanksgiving and Christmas, along with our other visits,” says Harris. “At least we all stay in touch by phone/text.”
For some siblings, the pandemic has actually brought them closer. “I would say our conversations have become more regular since the pandemic started,” says Bohnekamp, whose family does weekly phone and Zoom video calls.
“Emphasizing the importance of family particularly in times of crisis sends messages of the importance of connection,” says Wendy O’Connell-Smith, coordinator of parenting programs at Family Services Ottawa. “It’s about experiencing that the relationship can remain emotionally intact despite the challenges faced during life events.”
Healing sibling relationships
“In our highly mobile culture, many people may drift from their siblings as they get older,” says Schmidt. “However, some people will prioritize time and closeness with siblings.”
What often brings adult siblings together is the willingness to hear one another without the need to be ready for a rebuttal, adds Shah. “Actively listening to one another with no judgment is a start even when there are many unresolved issues within their relationship.”
In Dr. Marquis’s line of work, adult siblings don’t often present for therapy, unless problems, which include issues related to their shared parents; aging; illness; and death, arise in the family context. “Often looking at identifying old hurts from childhood that have (re)surfaced,” says Dr. Marquis.
The restrictions set by the pandemic don’t really stand in the way of therapy for those siblings that want to try it, says Dr. Marquis. “Now that most services are being provided via teletherapy (video/phone calls), this could be a unique opportunity for siblings who live far apart to work on improving their relationship.”
The type of therapy used is emotionally focused family therapy (EFFT), where the therapist or psychologist helps the siblings to identify the patterns of interactions in which they engage.
Whatever it takes, siblings who are close agree that it’s worth the effort to maintain one of life’s most important relationships. “We share a lot of beautiful family memories and we’ve also have been through difficult, challenging times together,” says Bohnekamp. “I have to say that getting older – and maybe a little wiser in some ways – helps focus on what really matters: The love and mutual support, the act of spending time together (even if only possible via Zoom and phone at the moment) and sharing what’s going on in each of our lives.”
“For better or worse, there’s no other relationship so deeply rooted as what siblings have,” concludes Harris.
How to improve your adult sibling relationships
- “I would recommend people learn ‘The Speaker-Listener’ communication technique; many people in heated conversations begin to tune out thinking about their response, often making assumptions about what the other person means. This technique invites slower communication with required clarification to ensure understanding prior responding.” – Jonathan Schmidt
- “Keep communication open… Be aware of impact you are having on your sibling and the impact your sibling is having on you. Try to identify where you get ‘stuck’/blocked in your interaction and communication with your sibling, which helps to identify any negative patterns, try not to blame the other.” – Dr. Robyn Marquis
- “In any friendships or relationships, it takes two to make it work. Once both agree to wanting to improve, it’s OK to seek help to guide you both through the rough patches. It provides that safe space for both to speak their truth without the fear of being judged.” – Parul Shah
- “I recommend expressing the desire for improved closeness, compassion and curiosity about possible past hurts, and finding things both can enjoy doing together.” – S.
- “It may take time to reconnect. Practice patience. Understand that you may have had different experiences growing up in the family.” – Wendy O’Connell-Smith
How to improve sibling relationships between your own children
- “Respect each child’s uniqueness; no comparison; setting ground rules equally; provide insight on why communicating can create a less frustrating environment; let them figure things out without the need to solve it for them. If there is no resolution, then it’s always a good idea for them to seek help from you.” – Parul Shah
- “Work to be more emotionally present and less reactive, building connection with physical and emotional safety, modelling humility and consent, and building a history of activities of shared enjoyment.” – Jonathan Schmidt
- “There’s a stereotype of siblings teasing one another; this can be normal, but can also lead to strain/hurt in relationships if not supported. Parents have an important role supporting siblings to know how to apologize and reconnect after hurts.”– J.S.
- “It is very helpful if parents can act as a ‘safe base’ for their children—to help kids navigate through these inherently challenging moments with their parents’ active support and not to become overwhelmed, to be able to tap into own feelings and experience to express (them)selves.” – Dr. Robyn Marquis.
- “Children with a secure attachment with their parents are more likely to feel respected and loved, which will plant the seeds for how siblings will relate to one another.” – Wendy O’Connell Smith
“As children, parents influence the building blocks of the sibling relationship. As children grow into adulthood, the responsibility for the relationship shifts so that the adult siblings need to take ownership and set the parameters of the relationship.” – Wendy O’Connell-Smith