Our experience of our brothers and sisters or our experience of being an only child inevitably impacts on our sense of self, not only as children, but as adults. If you take a moment to ask yourself the question: how was I known in the family? What answer do you get? “The bossy one”? “The one who got away with everything”? “The spoiled one”? “Mum’s favourite”? “The special, much-wanted only child”? “The mistake”?
There are so many labels that can be given to us as children and which we may ﬁnd difﬁcult to shed as we grow up.
Identifying with these can inﬂuence how we behave in group situations, socially and at work. So much goes on in family dynamics – amongst the children and the parents. There is, more often than not, some comparison; perhaps a hierarchy based on age, gender, academic ability, looks, talents and so on. In families with two children or more there may be hostility amongst siblings as they compete for attention; rivalry and competition maybe encouraged by the parents who perhaps tell themselves that they are “preparing the children for the dog-eat-dog world of the workplace”.
All normal stuff, you might say, facilitating the child’s entry into the rough and tumble of adult life.
Does this support healthy relationships, however? Think about your own family…. are you aware of who has the biggest house, best-paid job, cleverest children, most successful career? Do you feel more than or less than one or other sibling?
We may have experienced feeling less loved than other siblings. Perhaps we have not felt recognised and acknowledged as the unique individuals that we are. If so, how has that effected us reaching our potential? We may have experienced a lack of fulﬁllment, on the other hand, we may have become more driven and achieved our goals in an attempt to be seen. There are many examples of sibling rivalry extending into adulthood. In more recent political history, we have experienced a very marked and visible continuation of competition and rivalry between two brothers, quite Shakespearean in its ramiﬁcations.
Family ties can often evoke strong feeling which can range from a passionate loyalty to the “clan” to an absolute wish to cut ourselves off from our roots. There are added complexities: one arises when parents separate and form new families with another partner. A child’s need for attention and afﬁrmation perhaps becomes more pressing and intense. Another is when a child is adopted or long-term fostered. How does he or she feel they ﬁt into the family? How has your relationship with your siblings or, indeed, your relationship with your lack of siblings, served and limited you? As an only child you may have longed for a brother or sister.
Your position as the oldest child may have left you with an ability to organise, lead from the front, take responsibility, despite your memory of your childhood being somewhat lonely as you forged the path from which your siblings beneﬁtted. You may feel like a “classic” middle child, not sure of how to ﬁnd your place and make your mark within the family. Or, as a youngest child, perhaps you leave all decision-making to the older/wiser/ more experienced people. These are, of course, clichés and are not the whole story, but they carry some truth and we may become aware of our childhood behavioural patterns when we are in group situations.
What effect has your experience of siblings (or the lack of them) had on your adult relationships or on your relationship with life itself? Siobhan Tinker and Brian Graham are running the workshop: The Wounds and Gifts of the Siblings on Saturday, 28th November at the Psychosynthesis Trust at London Bridge.