Palo Alto Counseling, Psychotherapist in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol Campbell, MFT
706 Cowper Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301 • (650) 325-2576
License MFC 28308
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Oh Brother! Let's Talk About Siblings

by Carol Campbell, MFT

Everybody can relate to the idea that our emotional competence in life has a good deal to do with the emotional competence of our parents. However, the influence of our siblings is a factor that also has a huge impact on how we develop. Far less has been written about siblings than about parents, but it's probably just as important for a therapist to know about a patient's relationships with brothers and sisters.

Here are my top three issues that get shaped by interactions with siblings:

  1. Sharing – When another kid is on the scene in childhood, a child is forced to learn how to share scarce resources, such as Mom's lap, Dad's time to play catch, the choice of what to watch on TV or listen to in the car, who gets the last taco on the platter, and so on. All the goodies of life need to somehow be distributed. Depending on how kind and thoughtful our siblings are, learning about sharing can be anything from traumatizing to inspiring. Some people are born with a temperament that makes it easy for them to share with others. Others come into the world prone to letting others take advantage of their own timidity about defending territorial rights. Others are so self-absorbed that they don't even realize when they are pushing a sibling out of the way to get to the cookie jar first.
    If we are lucky, we make an adaptable response to our siblings. We then learn to push back if we are pushed around, as opposed to collapsing in tears and calling for Mommy. Or we learn to look out for the timid one, to make sure he is included in the game. We learn to take turns and tolerate disappointments.
    If these issues are difficult for you, and you feel as if others seem to always be taking the better part of what gets divided, it might be helpful to talk to a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist about what went well and what didn't with siblings in your childhood. You do not need to stay trapped in dysfunctional patterns from your childhood.
  2. Caring – When we have siblings growing up, we have daily exposure to how it feels for another person to feel and express emotions. We are deeply affected by the inconsolable crying of a baby sister who has colic; we then feel the helplessness of not being able to stop someone else's pain. We are affected when the whole family gathers to sing happy birthday to a family member; it feels very different when you are the one being celebrated. I may be envious when it's your special day, but deep inside I have had my own experience of what that must be like for you.
    This kind of exposure to a wide range of emotions can prepare us for a healthy participation in everything from civic responsibilities, to the workplace, to our friendships and love relationships. But when sibling relationships in childhood are tense and competitive, sometimes we don't learn how to have empathy for others. One benefit of good psychoanalysis is that an adult who lacks the mental capacity to be empathic can develop it after all, and have a much happier life.
  3. Resolving conflicts – Every family has its own ways of teaching children about how to resolve conflicts. A wise parent will not intervene all the time to play the role of justice distributor, but rather, let the siblings work out their disputes for the most part. Each kid's personality will evolve out of experiences like that. Who will become a leader? Who will be the clown? Who will give up and go find something more interesting to do? How can you see those patterns in the adult siblings? What are you grateful for, and what might you hold resentments about?
    Perhaps you grew up in a family where there was poor role modeling by the parents when it came to resolving conflicts, and it was just a matter of might makes right. Then you are likely to have difficult relationships not only with your siblings, but also with your parents. It would be smart to get professional help on this issue sooner rather than later. Most therapists don't make jail visits!
    Resolving conflicts intelligently is a skill desperately needed around the world today. My wish is that parents will provide the necessary space, support, and expectations for their children, so that they may grow up knowing that there are ways to solve problems other than demonizing someone who sees things differently. If your family is having some troubles in this area, consider calling a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist to help you sort things out and have a happier family.

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Calls regarding appointments are welcome at my private voicemail: 650-325-2576.

Carol L. Campbell, MFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist providing psychotherapy and psychoanalysis for individual adults and couples in Palo Alto, California. She has degrees from Brown University and Santa Clara University and has been licensed since 1991. Carol is a graduate of the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Training Program sponsored at Stanford by the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis and was a candidate at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California in San Francisco from 2010-2011. She is also a clinical member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology.

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