My sister is in town, and we’ve been having a blast! It’s wonderful to have someone in your life that you’ve known – literally – forever, and can share your deepest hopes and fears with. Siblings are the only people who have experienced growing up in the same household, with the same traditions, events and annoyances. A simple phrase, taste or physical gesture can bring back years of history in an instant. But sharing that frame of reference can also have a few drawbacks. We all grow and change, and it can be difficult for siblings to move beyond the roles we assumed when we were children. If brothers and sisters want to have successful adult relationships with one another, though, we need to be able to embrace the people we have each become. Here are a few thoughts on making that transition.
You and your sibling may have grown up together, but once you leave the house, every person is subject to different influences. Adulthood forces us to form opinions and make decisions about everything from money to marriage to values. The combination of new influences and experiences may cause you or your sibling to reject certain ideas from your childhood that you each accepted as a given at the time. If you find that your sibling has a new outlook, try to embrace his or her new attitudes and opinions. If you’re the one who has changed, clearly communicate how you now feel and give your sibling some time to get used to it. If find you aren’t on the same page, either agree to disagree or get curious and see what you might be able to learn from one another.
Be open to the fact that your sibling may be in a place in their lives that you are not used to observing. It can be tough to admit that your pesky younger brother can now offer useful advice. Alternatively, it can be hard to reconcile the fact that an older sibling you’ve always relied on for guidance may not have all the answers anymore. It’s one of the wonderful things about getting older together – the differences in years begin to mean less, and what means more is the fact that there’s someone in your life who always has your best interests at heart. Respect the new place that they are in. Try to relate to them in their current state of mind instead of holding them to a standard or role you formed when you were still in pigtails.
If your sibling is married, they are now part of another family. When making decisions, this new family and its needs come first. It can be very hard to accept that your own wishes may take a backseat when planning family celebrations, vacationing together or even just communicating. For example, if your sibling has children, chances are that they will be much less available for casual chitchat. But don’t let this deter you from remaining close! Find a way to be a part of your sibling’s new life. Perhaps it means that instead of long telephone conversations, your main form of communication will now be quick texts. While it can be difficult to adjust to new patterns, the more important thing is that you are both trying to find ways to remain in each others’ lives.
No matter how much we change, some things remain the same. Just because you’ve got a college degree doesn’t mean that old conflicts vanish with adulthood. What does change is our ability to cope with them, talk about them and when necessary, to ask forgiveness.
One suggestion to ease the way forward? Try to identify what triggers old, negative feelings and then see what you can do to change or avoid those prompts. For example, perhaps when you were a kid, your parents labeled you as the “Wonder Child” because you had such a seemingly easy time at school. But now that you’re an adult, life is more complex, things aren’t always so easy and you’re learning to deal with failure. The old nickname makes you feel anxious and inadequate, a bit like a fraud. Every time your sibling uses it, you get defensive and lash out. If you can recognize that “Wonder Child” is the trigger for this kind of behavior, you can ask your sibling to stop using it and even more importantly, tell them why it bothers you. It will accomplish the dual goal of helping to end the negative interaction between the two of you, and laying a more honest foundation for your adult relationship.
And when all else fails, do not underestimate the power of laughter! Maintaining a sense of humor about all things family can go a long way in keeping the peace.
If you’ve got a story about how you and your sibling have successfully made the leap from childhood to adulthood, please share it with us.