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How To Amend Your Sibling Relationship Before It’s Too Late — Dr. Avidan Milevsky and Imi Lo
Today we talk to an expert in sibling relationships, Dr. Avidan Milevsky. In this conversation, we managed to squeeze in a lot of topics. Dr. Avidan is clearly very passionate and knowledgeable.
We started by him sharing his personal story of being one of five.
Then we explored:
- Why you and your sibling could grow up in the same house but turn out so radically different.
- How to tell normal sibling fighting from sibling abuse
- When to set boundaries with toxic siblings and how
- Is it ever okay to cut off from a sibling?
- Why sibling relationships are a gift for life
His answers to these questions are far from generic, and actually gave us practical actionable advice we can use to heal from or improve sibling relationships. I hope you learn as much as I did from this conversation!
For more on this topic:
Imi Lo: So, hi, Dr. Avidan Milevsky. Welcome to Eggshell Transformation. Welcome to the show. Today, we have a very important, but rather under-discussed topic, which is siblings; sibling rivalry, sibling favouritism, adult sibling staff. And I think you are an expert in this, and I’m very excited to be able to get more wisdom and knowledge from you.
Dr. Avidan : Thanks for inviting me. I appreciate it.
Dr. Avidan Milevsky’s Personal Story of being one of five siblings
Imi Lo: Cool. So I would like to start by… Well, first of all, if possible, please introduce yourself to our audience; where you are now, where you’re teaching. And then I want to get on to a more personal side. Based on the results of my research, I think you come from a rather big family. You’re one of five. What was that like?
Dr. Avidan All right. So we’ll do one question at a time. So, I guess in terms of what I currently do, I’m currently an associate professor of psychology at Ariel University in Israel. I split my time between the US and Israel. I’m also a psychologist. I practice, primarily, family dynamic therapy, with a focus on the sibling piece. So also on the university front, in terms of my research, we do a lot of sibling-based research, on many angles of the sibling question, but also in my private practice, I infuse the sibling lens into therapy. And in both of these areas, the research on siblings and clinical work on siblings, there’s really not enough, not nearly as much as there should be. Considering what we know, research tells us about the power of the sibling dynamic throughout life. And what we’re seeing now in clinical reports about the power of integrating siblings in therapy. So, I’m working on both of these fronts, and we hope that the word gets out and more people get involved with this.
Imi Lo: I’m making notes because now you’re giving me food for thoughts and so many more questions I want to ask about it, but go back to your journey and I’ll throw those questions in later.
Dr. Avidan So I guess, like every other good researcher, their research topic comes from a personal journey, as you call it. I am one of five siblings as you found out, and we always had… Growing up as children, it always interests us, what that means to be a very sibling-based person. We’re not just one of five, we’re a very close-knit group of five siblings. We’re four brothers and a younger sister. And growing up, we really were very, very connected. And as kids even, we were asking what that meant for us being very close as siblings, and sometimes it came at the expense of friendship. So we were perfectly fine, hanging out together, playing soccer together as siblings. We obviously had friends, but we very much were more of a sibling-focused family, so that always triggered my interest initially.
Imi Lo: Interesting. I never thought how it would come at the expense of friendships, but that makes sense because you don’t have to be so close. Siblings are your friends, your peers, they belong to the same generation, and unlike your parents, you don’t have to cross the generational bridge in order to hang out with your sibling. Is there a wide age gap?
Dr. Avidan My oldest brother is seven years above me, and then one is four years. So I guess when you’re throwing in the research on the age gap, would that be considered larger or not, I was right in the middle. So I had two above me and two below me. So I had, on both ends, not such a wide gap, so four years above and four years below. In the literature about age gap, which is a great question in and of itself, how does that impact the sibling dynamic?
Dr. Avidan So bringing the personal story into more of the research piece, one of the big questions that we try to answer in our research studies is, what are the factors that contribute to close-knit sibling units? People think that it’s random. It just comes out that way, or is it age gap issues, is it gender issues? And one of the things that we’re finding in our studies, and there are others around the world who are studying it as well, but one of the things that we’re finding is that, less are the influences of gender and age gap and age spacing and family size. All those variables are known in the literature as constellation variables.
Imi Lo: Constellation variables.
Dr. Avidan That’s the term. It’s a great term that I think it captures the essence of what this thing is. And all these constellation variables are important, obviously. So, two sisters, studies show, are going to be closer than two brothers. So constellations play a role, or if there’s close-knit age sibling units, there’s more rivalry because we’re into the same things and we may compete over the same things. Whereas if my brother is much older than me, what I’m interested in, so if I want a bigger piece of cake right now, he doesn’t care about cake anymore. Or if I want a new gadget, he’s in a different age range. The age gap is also going to play a role in sibling rivalry.
Imi Lo: Interesting.
Dr. Avidan But just beyond these constellations, it’s really more of the family system that produces closeness between siblings. So it’s the parenting factors and the family factors that are more likely to impact how close siblings actually are.
The Benefits of Having Good Sibling Relationships
Imi Lo: Yes. And I have been… So many responses. Well, first of all, I really understand and I really agree. I’ve read that you only envy people who you think are in some way similar to you. For example, we wouldn’t suddenly go and become very envious of the president because we see ourselves as being quite different to they are. Some people do, but… So that makes sense that you would be easily triggered into rivalries and envies when they’re similar sex, similar age, similar generation. And you mentioned research a lot, and this is something your unique expertise could really help this conversation, which is, what are the research actually saying? What did they say about sibling relationships’ influence on a person’s life? Is it good? Is it bad? How good? How bad? And one question at the time.
Dr. Avidan Right. So, beyond these variables that contribute to sibling relationships, I think the question that comes beforehand, which is one of the areas that we’ve also studied, is, is it worth investing in it? So I guess this is really just an opening question. Why even have a podcast about sibling dynamics? Why do research? So like any good research study, or when I teach students in a seminar about how to write a paper, you got to start off with presenting the problem. Why is this an important topic? So your question really speaks to that. What we know from studies is that individuals who have a close sibling relationship throughout life, do better on many, many outcomes. So, children, teenagers, adults, and old age, in each of these four phases of life, those who have a close sibling dynamic, do better in life on many, many measures.
Dr. Avidan So for example, in childhood, kids who have a close sibling relationship, do better in school, have better mental wellbeing, psychological wellbeing. Adolescents who are close with their siblings have less risky behavior. The adolescent years are notorious for risky behaviors, be it risky driving behavior, drug abuse, sexual activity. Studies show that siblings who are close, teenagers who are close with their siblings, are less likely to engage in these risky behaviors. The whole identity struggle during the teenage years is also calmed, it’s a bit easier. Those who have sibling dynamics, and even in adulthood, adults who lose their job or have marital issues, your common adult stress in general, those who are closer with their siblings, deal with these life adversities in healthier ways. So yes, a close sibling relationship gives us a lifelong gift, so it’s worth investing in it.
Imi Lo: Absolutely. I mean, in a way, it’s like common sense; your closer siblings are supportive, but the fact that it’s backed by research is amazing. And I suppose not just one research, but plenty.
Dr. Avidan Right. We happen to have one research group on siblings. There’s a great team at Penn State that does sibling research, there’s a group at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who does some great research, there’s some researchers in Australia. So thankfully, it’s happening on a global front, and more and more, we’re seeing these different groups, and we happen to know each other because there aren’t many of us, so we often collaborate, and we see more and more.
Why is Sibling Relationships/ Sibling Rivalry.. such a neglected topic?
Imi Lo: Yeah. That’s another question I have. Why is it such a neglected piece? I know psychoanalysis talk a lot about parents, the Oedipus complex, et cetera, but there were very little talk about sibling complexes.
Dr. Avidan Right. So I guess, depending on your theoretical orientation, you may answer that question differently. Why do researchers neglect siblings? So, there’s different answers to that, and psychoanalysts are going to tell you one thing, but from a very young age, this is-
Imi Lo: What do they say?
Dr. Avidan Right. Psychoanalysts would say that it’s connected with the Oedipal and the confidence with the parents. So it was much more of the parent focus and much less of the sibling focus.
Imi Lo: For sure.
Dr. Avidan And this sibling focus often was very negative; the rivalry. And Adlerian theory, post-Freud, it painted a very, very negative picture on the sibling dynamic. So, if that’s the case, we don’t really gain much, so what do we do work on it. But what we know now is that that’s not the case. We know now how powerful and how supportive that relationship could be. What happens, I think, and this is not based on studies, this is just my own view on this, is that, from a very young age, when we fight with our kids, our parents tell us erroneously, “Ignore him. Don’t talk to him. Go into that room and he’ll go into that room, and don’t talk to each other until you graduate college.” So we’re trained, from very young age, “Ignore your siblings.” So guess what. Researchers who are now adults, ignore siblings. It continues that. And again, it’s unfortunate because first of all, when kids fight, that’s not the right way.
And that’s a whole other area of research; what do you do when your kids fight? The way you’re not to do it is just separate them and don’t talk to each other, because, then you’re losing out-
Imi Lo: Rivals.
Dr. Avidan …On that very powerful relationship. That concept, that’s the way the old generation did it. You’re fighting, “Separate. You go here and you go there.” You’re losing out on this lifelong gift. And then as researchers, it’s unfortunate because it’s such a powerful tool, developmentally and clinically, neglecting it… Now, by the way, we’re not just neglecting it clinically and research-wise. When it comes to social services, there’s a neglect of sibling issues, family law.
Imi Lo: Interesting.
Dr. Avidan There’s a neglect of sibling issues in many, many different areas. I’ll just give you one example. Social services, for example, how many organizations are devoted to supporting parents of children with disabilities? There are many, many organizations. What about organizations that help well-siblings of children with disabilities? Not much. So we really neglect the whole issue of siblings in many, many different areas.
Sibling Orders— Does it really matter?
Imi Lo: Oh God, that makes sense. Yeah. That’s my experience as well. It’s not even thought, really. You mentioned Alfred Adler, who’s having a comeback recently, I think, because of some books being written. He talks a lot about sibling order, doesn’t he? That certain sibling order, if you’re the bigger brother, you have certain personality traits. What does modern research say about it? Is it true?
Dr. Avidan Right. So theoretically, he’s definitely the one that started with this concept. There’s a great-
Imi Lo: Yeah. Sibling order.
Dr. Avidan Right. Sibling order, very much, he spoke about it a lot. Murray Bowen, who is a great family systems guru-
Imi Lo: I love Bowen.
Dr. Avidan …Also spoke a lot about that sibling dynamic, especially when it comes to marriage. So what happens if the firstborn marries the youngest, or two firstborns marry. That’s a fascinating area.
Imi Lo: Interesting.
Dr. Avidan So, one of them really complements the other.
Imi Lo: Can you say a little bit? What happens if…
Dr. Avidan Right. So let’s combine. If we combine Adler and Bowen, so according to Adler, firstborns have very, very clear characteristics. They’re the leaders, they’re the natural-born leaders, they’re the ones who need to be in charge. And now, by the way, current modern research does support that. We do know that there’s something about being a firstborn. It’s not random that a lot of CEOs, presidents-
Imi Lo: Okay. So it’s good to know that it is actually supported by research.
Dr. Avidan Yeah. There’s something behind that firstborns definitely are at an advantage when it comes to leadership. Some studies even show that irrespective of some other issues, their IQ scores are higher. Some studies even say up to 10 points higher than other types of siblings.
Imi Lo: That’s a lot.
Dr. Avidan That is.
Imi Lo: But I mean, they don’t really know why, isn’t it? I think some theory may be that your parents have more resources, both biologically and financially, when you are the first.
Dr. Avidan Right. And time and energy. You’re obviously spending much more time and energy with that first one, and you’re taking them to museums and you’re reading them books, but as soon as you have a bunch of other kids, who has time for that stuff? I can barely keep up with grocery shopping. So there’s a reason for it. So now, take that Adler concept, which is supported by current research about firstborns, and now let’s go to Murray Bowen and then connect two firstborns, two firstborns marry. They’re both the leader, they are both in charge, so how do you now survive and marry where they both want to be in charge.
Imi Lo: It would be interesting to see how often they are attracted to each other, I’m just making up things here because I have not done any research in this, or someone whose firstborn would be more likely to be attracted to someone who needs taken care of, so that they fit into their familiar role …?
Dr. Avidan Interesting. That’s an interesting area of research, in and of itself, about the attraction part. But once that actually happens, that’s going to create some family dynamic. So, an older one, like what you’re saying, there are some studies that when an older one marries a younger one, so the younger one is the cuddled and is taken care of, and the older one is used to taking care of, what happens if you connect them? So that’s going to play a role also in the family dynamic, the sibling constellation components, and then when you put them together in marriage. Now, obviously, there’s a lot of variables that go into what creates a healthy family and what creates development. So there’s a lot out there, and thankfully, we have these advanced statistical models that help us take a lot into account. But if you narrow it down, the sibling story is an important story when it comes to lifespan development in clinical psychology, so it’s important to really speak more about it because it definitely is a determinant as it relates to wellbeing.
What about those without siblings?
Imi Lo: Absolutely. And I’m glad I’m doing this; speaking to you about it. You mentioned how supportive it is to have siblings. What about people who are single child? Are they worse off then without the sibling influence?
Dr. Avidan Right. So that’s obviously a big question, that’s a very sensitive question. What is it to be an only child? Are there some things that only-children lack? And studies, by and large, seem to indicate that “Yes, there’s something unique that siblings offer.” Siblings teach us from a very young age, some basic social understandings. How to share, property ownership. What’s my brother’s and what’s mine? It’s his truck. I can’t go and grab it. And if I do, he’s going to hit me. That’s a very important life lesson. There’s ownership, there’s boundaries, there’s support, there’s a give and take when we fight, there are crucial life learning that we get, early in life, from that sibling dynamic. How do I engage socially? Those initial ingredients of healthy social interactions, I get it from my sibling. Only-children who don’t have that are going to lack these kind of important…
Dr. Avidan Now, does that mean that that’s it, they’re done, let’s just lock them up somewhere? Obviously not. There’s a whole other literature about compensatory processes. And compensatory processes show us that when one thing is lacking, thankfully, there are other things that could compensate. And compensatory mechanisms-
Imi Lo: Like what?
Dr. Avidan Like for example, cousins. So if I’m an only child, but I have cousins who live all around, and they’re-
Imi Lo: Friends. Yeah.
Dr. Avidan Or friends. You’re right. So, friends and cousins and extended family could compensate. But if you narrow down to an only-child versus those who are constantly with peers at home all the time, meaning siblings, there are very, very crucial life elements that those siblings are giving each other, that an only-child doesn’t have. Now, when you say this, I often get pushback. So when I lecture about this or when I write about it, often the nasty comment-
Imi Lo: Very sensitive.
Dr. Avidan …Come from only children. So, it’s obviously a sensitive topic. And one of the things that I say to people who challenge me, and usually I’m challenged by only children, is that it doesn’t mean that there’s an issue here with you, it doesn’t mean that you lack social skills, chances are that there were other compensatory mechanisms that were triggering to compensate.
Imi Lo: Or they had to work harder. Yeah.
Dr. Avidan Right. Exactly. They had to work harder. Right. But siblings offer us a unique developmental need that is a blessing.
Imi Lo: I mean, if it’s any consolation, earlier, you said the elder sibling get more resources. Well, the only child is getting all the resources, so that must have some advantage. But clearly, socially, in terms of early social learning, it’s different.
Dr. Avidan For sure.
Dysfunctional Sibling Relationships and ‘Unwritten Labels”
Imi Lo: So I have been writing an article about dysfunctional sibling dynamics or toxic sibling dynamics, more colloquial saying. So I’ve identified a few, but I’m sure there are countless. So what I have found are things like the black sheep and the golden child, or in some dynamic, when there’s a really mature one, there will be someone with less society-recognized achievement, maybe, or sometimes people say there’s a Peter Pan syndrome. And sometimes there is a bully, and then there is a victim of the bully. What do you think of these dynamics, and what are some other examples that you may be able to come up with?
Dr. Avidan So it’s interesting. You’re bringing up these labels that we often have within a family. And unfortunately, what happens is that, in childhood, these labels are placed upon children, and unfortunately, they stick with children, and many, many, many years later, these labels still exist. And a lot of these toxic dynamics that happen in adulthood are really a byproduct of these early childhood labels, that it’s like their relationship is frozen in place back in childhood. “You’re the troublemaker child. You’re the successful one. You’re the one who does well in school.” And 30 years later, these kids are still labeled and suffering from these labels.
Imi Lo: Exactly. I mean, I just want to clarify that these terms are not given by the parents. They didn’t necessarily say, “You are the black sheep,” but the way they treat them, the way they scapegoat them. These are just terms that I come up with so that it’s more accessible, people can really relate to it easier, but really, these are-
Dr. Avidan But sometimes, parents do. You’re right. Sometimes, it’s an unwritten label.
Imi Lo: Unwritten.
Dr. Avidan Right. But sometimes parents literally say, “Why can’t you be like your sister, Kim.” So, these are things that stick with us as children. And when I’m meeting with adults in my practice, and we start looking at the sibling dynamic, and you have these adults who still believe these things about themselves even though they’ve disproven it 30 years already, but those childhood labels are alive and well and very destructive.
Imi Lo: Completely. And some of the minefields would be workplace; workplace dynamics. Sometimes your boss suddenly become like your parents, and then your colleagues are your competitive siblings, or things like groups, church group, group therapy, group therapy for therapists. These are all places where siblings’ dynamics get played out.
Dr. Avidan For sure. And you’re right, these early childhood labels start playing out. And then one of the things that we’re doing, and some of our studies are doing this, and obviously, clinically, I’m doing this, is that when clients come in with other issues, so a client comes in with depression or a client comes in with anxiety or a client comes in with marital issues, because I like to look at it from the sibling lens, once we narrow it on the sibling lens, we often find that what’s underlined some of these issues are really sibling dynamics.
Dr. Avidan So a coworker says something, minimizes me at work, and then it spirals me into depression. Once you start digging into it, here, there’s a guy who has a story of an older brother who’s more success, and as a child, he was told, “Why can’t you be like,” and now he’s very sensitive to being less than, and at work, he’s triggered by that. But what’s at the core of it? It’s that sibling dynamic that’s underlined all these tensions. So looking at clients and looking at therapy from the sibling lens can really open up, not just with sibling issues, with all these mental health issues that, at the core, have sibling tensions that are really driving these things.
What should we do if we are triggered everywhere?
Imi Lo: Yeah. Well, I’m guessing this should have been a question that’s to be asked later, but I’m guessing people would be thinking, “So what do I do with it?” I can see it now. I’m triggered all the way in the same. It’s like my critical parents is in the room and everyone is against me. I feel like I don’t belong in this place. This is exactly how I felt in my family. What do they do?
Dr. Avidan Right. So I think it’s important to really go to someone who has a sibling lens, especially with the way you’re describing the parent piece. Often, these childhood definitions play out in adulthood, particularly when the parents come back into the picture. So, I don’t know, it’s Thanksgiving dinner, and now I’m with my siblings, but my parents are there now, so the fact that my parents are there, it really brings me back to childhood. And mom, again, asks my brother in front of me, “So, how is your job going? Wow, great job.” So these things are triggers. We’re backing up 40 years now when she asked my brother about the good grade he got in first grade. So when parents are in the picture, it just keeps that civil intention alive.
Dr. Avidan So what are the things that I do in treatment? One of the things that I do in therapy, and it’s not my technique, it’s a technique that has been used by others, and we’re doing it clinically and we’re doing some research on it now, is that we try to slowly disconnect the parents from the sibling dynamic. You don’t want to detach from your parents; parents are good; we encourage a good relationship with them, but when it comes to the sibling dynamic, we slowly want parents to get out of the way and let that sibling dynamic play out without their involvement. Because we do know, and there are some studies on this, that when parents get involved, again, it keeps those child definitions alive. And when the parents are involved, it really creates these tensions that we never resolved. The parents should step away, let the parents move back, and let the kids, the siblings, create their own relationship without the involvement of the parent.
Dr. Avidan Often, the parents do what is known as the relationship switchboard operator. The parents are those who are connecting. So my mom calls me to remind me that it’s my sister’s birthday. “So remember to call her.” “Hey, I’m 40. You have to still call me to remind me of my sister’s birthday?” “Your older brother, his son is graduating college. Make sure to call him to congratulate him.” “When do I do that myself?” So parents need to step back and let kids connect to each other independently, so then you have that really continuity of the relationship. So one of the things that I suggest to clients is, how do you slowly pull the parents out of the relationship and let the relationship thrive, independent to the parents?
Imi Lo: Interesting. Yeah. Because the parents are usually the people who started the favoritism which created the rivalries.
Dr. Avidan Right. Meaning it was the parental behaviors early on that created it. Which really brings in another part of this, is that, often, when adults have negative sibling relationships or hostility, they blame each other. “It’s your fault that we have this kind of relationship,” or “It’s his fault.” Once we start peeling away at it, and we do this in treatment, we start looking at, “Hang on. Who’s really responsible for the relationship that was created between you and your brother? Is it really him or is it maybe the parent behaviors early in life?”
Dr. Avidan So all these years you’ve been blaming the wrong person. It’s really the parents who created that. Now obviously, part of therapy is… we’re not just going to, “Okay, so it’s your parents’ fault, so hate your parents now.” You obviously need to exonerate the parents in some way. Maybe they were also responding to something that was happening in their life. But what is clear here, that it’s not your brother or sister, that caused what you’re upset about. It’s that early childhood family dynamic. And once you understand it and you pull that out, it gives you an opportunity and permission to reach out to a brother and sister and reconnect with them.
Imi Lo: Beautiful. Well, that leads on to one question that I have been wanting to ask. It’s a difficult one, but when the parents passed away, usually, it exposes all the problems. People fight for inheritance, et cetera. So how does it expose old problems? How does it change everything? Obviously, it could go in a good direction, in the way you described it, but does it sometimes also just take the lid off bottled problems and resentments?
Dr. Avidan Right. So what we know from this is just from family theory and family dynamics in general; is that whenever a family faces stress, they go to what they know how to do. So whatever ingredients the family-
Imi Lo: Equilibrium.
Dr. Avidan Right. It’s just to create that equilibrium, exactly. “So let’s go with what we know how to do.” So if the foundation of this family is a very close-knit sibling dynamic, and they really were close over the years and the parents let that independence thrive, and we really are a support for one another, so then a parent death, we go to that support to help us deal with a very, very difficult life circumstance; the death of a parent.
A story about sibling relationship healing
Dr. Avidan Before Corona, when I was giving lectures across the United States, I had this lady come up to me after I gave a lecture about adult sibling dynamics, and this lady says to me that a few months prior, her mother passed away. And she was a part of a four-sister unit, and they were very, very close growing up, and now mom passes away, very beloved mom, and they now had to go into the mom’s house and liquidate the house and sell the house. It was a very, very hard process, but she says that because she had that close sibling dynamic, what they made up is, every Wednesday night, they were going to meet up at mom’s house, they were going to sit around for an hour, drinking coffee and tea, and reminiscing and laughing and crying together about mom.
Imi Lo: That’s the best way to grieve.
Dr. Avidan And then they went room by room and they cleaned it out, and that’s what they did for a few months until they got this job done. And she says that it was the most supportive way that they could have had, that they were able to connect to each other and support each other in a very, very difficult grieving process.
Imi Lo: Yeah, it’s a ritual.
Dr. Avidan Mile…: Yeah. It could be a blessing.
Imi Lo: Absolutely.
Dr. Avidan It’s only going to happen if that foundation was set. On the other hand, I have, often, people come up to me after lectures, literally, the opposite side of it, say to me, “I haven’t spoken to my brother in 20 years since dad passed away.” So again, there were these tensions, and now instead of the sibling unit being such a support during the very difficult process, it creates so much more of a problem. Now, not only dad passed away, but now I hate my siblings, and all the fights come on.
Dr. Avidan Which is, again, another reason why I encourage adults, “Work on your sibling relationship now. Don’t wait until there’s an explosion, and then often, it’s unfortunately too late.” I can’t tell you how often I get an email or a message from someone out there in the world, saying, “Hey, our parent passed away. We’re fighting like crazy. What do we do now?” And unfortunately, the answer is it’s very, very difficult now. If you would’ve worked on it early on, when you’re adults and everything is relatively okay, work on that relationship so that when push comes to shove and you need that relationship, it really offers you a profound sense of support.
What is DE-IDENTIFICATION in sibling relationships?
Imi Lo: Yes. So nourish it when it’s not too late. De-identification. I would love you to explain what it is, how it happens, and the results.
Dr. Avidan So this is a whole area of research. Again, not enough research on it, but it’s out there. And this is when we often identify in sibling units that siblings are often not like one another. It’s always bewildering. You meet two brothers or two sisters, or brother and sister, and you say, “Wow, you guys are brothers? No way you guys are brothers. You guys are so different.” And one of the big questions that researchers are trying to answer is how can it be that two siblings that shared genetics, shared a home environment, end up being so different? So there’s a lot of studies about what’s known as the non-shared environment. Yes, the siblings lived together, but they had a non-shared environment. They had parents interacting with them differently and they had different teachers and different friends, and that’s part of the picture. But another part of the picture is that sometimes siblings actively decide to craft a different identity than the one that their older brother has, and that’s called de-identification.
Imi Lo: Consciously or unconsciously?
Dr. Avidan Right. So again, depends who you ask. So, the Freudians would say that it’s a subconscious process, and the more current studies would say, “No, I actually may make the decision. So I don’t want to be like my brother, I want to de-identify.” Where identifies like him, de-identifies the other way. Why would I do that? First of all, I want to stand out, “Hey, notice me. My brother’s exceptional, what about me?” So I’m going to de-identify by doing some other things. It also helps minimize rivalry. So if we’re not into the same things, if we don’t share interests in extracurricular activities and personalities, then we’re not being compared all the time, and then it minimize rivalry.
Dr. Avidan So it actually helps in minimizing sibling rivalry, to have a process of de-identification. It’s very distinct, especially during the teenage years. Teenagehood is the age of identity, and that’s where I want to carve out. So often, you see at the teenage years, one sibling suddenly goes a different direction to de-identify. So it’s encouraged. It definitely is a good process, and parents should be aware of this, that don’t stuff all your siblings into the same square. Listen to what they’re saying, listen to what they’re interested in, and let them thrive in their own areas. Not every girl in the family needs to do ballet and not every girl needs to do soccer, and not every guy needs to do drama. No, let each one identify what they’re into and what is interesting to them, and what they’re going to thrive in, and let each of your children excel in what they do. That’s going to de-identify them, it’s going to minimize rivalry, and it’s going to increase the support that they give one another.
Imi Lo: Exactly. Well, it’s like if my sister is good at math, that gap is filled. She’s the math person, I can’t compete of math, so I’m going to be good at art. That way, my parents will love me for my art.
Dr. Avidan That’s de-identification. It’s actually a healthy process. And then let kids excel at what they do, and then we’re not competing and we could support each other without that tension.
How do we tell normal siblings fighting from sibling abuse?
Imi Lo: Thank you. That’s a really good explanation, really, really clear. Well, another important [inaudible 00:33:24] question is, both adults and kids, but supposedly, kids, how can we tell sibling bullying from normal sibling fighting? Because obviously, we fight all the time, it’s hard for two human or three human or four human to be squashed in the same house. How do we tell bullying, abuse, sibling abuse, from normal fighting?
Dr. Avidan Right. So it’s an important question because it’s important for parents to know the difference, because, often, parents mix them up, and then they have this policy of “There’s no tension between siblings in our home.” And that’s not a good orientation, because, tensions between siblings, it’s an opportunity for siblings to learn crucial social skills. So when I grab something my brother has, and he yells at me, I learn about, like we said, ownership, who owns things? How do I deal with tensions? How do I deal with negative emotions? How do I deal with anger? These are very, very important, crucial life skills. So when kids fight, it’s not a problem. Kids fighting is not a problem. It’s actually an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for parents to help them learn life skills. However, we do know that at some point, it could cross the line and it goes into sibling bullying.
Imi Lo: How can we tell?
Dr. Avidan And sibling bullying is when it’s persistent and it’s nonstop, and you see that the victim is suffering, is changing their behavior, is not eating well now. If the sibling bullying interacts now with their friends, so if the older sibling bully tells the friends of the younger one different things about the younger sibling, about what’s happening, private things at home, so if it’s expanding into other relationships that the victim has, and if you see changes in the behavior and emotions, then you know that this has really crossed the line, or physical abuse, obviously also. If there’s physical contact, that’s also a crossing of the line. You could fight without punching each other.
Dr. Avidan So the physical component of it is also that boundary, and do you know what, we’ve crossed into something harmful, and that’s when we need to intervene, parents need to intervene. And there are techniques of how to intervene in these cases, or psychologists who specialize in sibling issues, how to minimize that. But your basic sibling tensions, often, is an opportunity for life skills, so let that happen, and support it and teach them how to do it, but don’t let it cross into the bullying because that’s very, very destructive.
Imi Lo: Absolutely. I mean, if there’s a grown-up now and are sitting in front of you, and they go, “Well, this relationship with my brother, it’s contentious. I don’t know if it’s bullying.” What are some of the questions you might ask them, or what are some of the questions they can ask themselves, both as a child, and now the way they interact with their sibling, brother, or sister, how can we tell?
Dr. Avidan How do you tell? So, for adults, I would say, how long does it take you to recover from a sibling interaction? Do you require contact recovery time? It’s an actual term. So I got together with my brother over Thanksgiving, or I got together with my sister, and she said these things and now offended me, and now I need a week vacation to survive and to deal with. Then you know that it really is playing out in other areas of your life. Or if it’s impacting the relationship you have with your spouse, or now your kids are suffering.
Dr. Avidan So if you see it playing out in other areas in your life, you know that there’s something very painful in that sibling dynamic, and your sibling triggers you in very, very unhealthy ways. If it just happened, they said a comment, you went after them and it ended well, and 10 minutes later, you were not thinking about it, that’s more… It doesn’t mean you can’t work on it. It’s unfortunate that’s there. That means that there’s some tensions underlying, and they’re not going to be a support when you need them, so I advise you to take care of that, but that wouldn’t be a concern where, “Wow, this is bullying.” It’s not really playing out in other parts of your life, but if it is impacting your behaviors, your emotions, your cognitions, that’s when I would say this has really crossed a boundary that needs more serious intervention.
Is it ever okay to cut off a family member/ sibling?
Imi Lo: Right. And if there were sibling bully, I mean, a question to ask may be is it okay to not interact with a sibling? This is a big question in general; is it okay to cut family members off if they are abusive? What do you suggest?
Dr. Avidan That’s definitely a question. When siblings… When we’re dealing with mental illness or with drug abuse, or with alcoholism, when we’re dealing with these severe mental issues, and you’re trying and trying and trying, and that relationship is really disruptive for you and it’s disruptive for your spouse, and your children are suffering from it, at some point, and it’s a very difficult moment and it’s a very, very difficult decision, and it got to be supervised. I would advise people to talk to others about it and get some support in a very, very difficult decision where, this relationship, I know we grew up and mom said that family is the most important thing, and through thick and thin and fire and water, and all these things that different cultures say about the importance, but if it’s destroying your current family and if it’s destroying your marriage and if it’s destroying what’s happening with your children, because you have this uncle or this brother who, at some point, you say to yourself, it’s not worth it, it’s destructive, it’s destroying family. For the sake of family, that just doesn’t add up.
Dr. Avidan So obviously, you need support, and it’s not a decision that should be made quickly, it really need to be thought out, but at some point, you make that decision that this relationship is amazingly destructive, you tried everything. You always keep a door open; you never know if that person seeks treatment and changes, and now if they need you, when they could actually be a support as well. Keep the door open, but at some point, that decision is made. It’s a very difficult decision. Sometimes people come to sibling therapy, which is what we offer; to go through that. Very difficult decision. It’s very, very difficult. It’s a very difficult decision.
Imi Lo: It should really be more of a thing, but I hear you. Basically, the answer is yes, it’s okay if it’s repeatedly detrimental, but make sure you try everything and make sure to keep the door open.
Dr. Avidan Exactly.
How do we set boundaries with a toxic sibling?
Imi Lo: Yeah. So if it’s not reaching that point yet, but we simply want to set some boundaries, how do we do that? Big question.
Dr. Avidan Right. So, that’s obviously one of the most important ingredients in a healthy family; creating the boundaries. So obviously, if you’re an adult and you have a spouse, it’s always a good idea to talk to them about it and speak to them about, “Okay, what kind of boundaries are we creating with your siblings or with my siblings?” I recently was doing Zoom therapy with a client. Right now, we’re doing Zoom therapy for the past year, so we’re still doing that. And sure enough, in middle of a Zoom therapy, suddenly, a face pops into the screen, and it’s the sibling of one of my clients, who just came into the house. It was an adult.
Dr. Avidan So this person just came into the house, came into the room, and my client, who obviously had service issues, which is one of the reasons that she’s a client, and to say “Who are you talking to?” And she sticks her head into the screen. And wow, that’s a boundary violation beyond belief. So we know when it’s crossing the boundaries, and creating those boundaries is important. And sometimes it requires sometimes just physical boundaries. “I’m going to lock my door. I’m not going to answer my phone. I don’t have to answer that text.” Right. So sometimes it starts with physical boundaries.
Imi Lo: Or time boundaries. I’m going to come here for two hours, Thanksgiving, and then I’m gone.
Dr. Avidan Exactly. But what clients sometimes need is really creating some kind of hierarchy. So it may be hard to jump to “No.” When a sibling says something, I’m saying, “No,” that may be too much, but you start with incremental steps. You use a classic behavioral technique of systematic desensitizing. So you start out with something… What’s the small little thing that you can do to create the boundary? Not answering the phone. Okay. Can you do that? Let’s do some deep breathing and let’s go through that boundary, and let’s go to the next level. Maybe number 10 on that ladder is going to be, when they ask me to do something, I’m going to say, “Sorry, I can’t do it.” Wow, I’m going to pass out if I do that now, but slowly, we can get to that boundary.
Imi Lo: I really like that. Basically, exposure therapy, but incrementally.
Dr. Avidan Exactly.
Imi Lo: [crosstalk 00:41:53].
Dr. Avidan Even when it comes to sibling dynamics. Exactly.
How do we reconcile and heal our sibling relationship?
Imi Lo: Yeah, absolutely. That’s really good. Never thought of applying that to sibling dynamics. And so I suppose I’ve been asking very similar questions; how we set boundaries, but how can we reconcile? You’ve already answered that; to undo the influence of parents.
Dr. Avidan Right. Well, reconciliation often requires pulling the parents out of the picture.
Imi Lo: Yeah. I suppose that.
Dr. Avidan And really triggering… There’s this natural, beautiful relationship that should be the sibling dynamic. A close sibling relationship is a birthright. It’s the most natural, beautiful thing. And if it’s not what’s happening in your life, that means something prevented this beautiful thing from developing. Let’s pull that out of the picture and create… Again, a close sibling relationship is a lifelong gift. It literally is the best gift in the world; a close sibling relationship. So it’s worth investing in it, because, nothing will be better and more supportive than a close sibling relationship.
Big family vs small family sibling relationships
Imi Lo: That’s beautiful… I just almost want to end here, but I still have some questions. Almost there. I mean, what other differences, generally in sibling dynamics, when it comes to a family like yours, the big family with five siblings, seven siblings, versus a family with only two. Are there?
Dr. Avidan Right. There’s. That’s one of the big questions that goes into this whole sibling constellation question. So we throw that into the constellation categories. And really, when you look at literature, you have answers on both ends. On one hand, there are advantages to smaller families because there’s less competition for resources and attention from parents. So if there’s 10 kids in the house, everyone’s fighting for time with mom and dad, so that tension could be detrimental. So that’s a point for smaller families. On the other hand, when it’s a small sibling unit, that now there’s fighting going on, I got no siblings. Whereas if there’s a lot of siblings, I may be fighting with John, but I got Stephanie and Steven, Christina over there. If there’s a lot of siblings, so at least I got siblings coming from some other kind of avenue.
Dr. Avidan One of the studies that we’re actually doing right now, that speaks to this question, is that we’re doing studies now on siblings who lost a sibling in war and in terror attack. So it’s a study we’re doing in Israel. Unfortunately, we have a lot of terrorist attacks in Israel. Thankfully, it’s getting better the past couple of years. So one of the things that we’re doing is we’re interviewing siblings of those who died in the army or in terror attacks, and one of the variables that we’re looking at is, does the process of mourning and the process of regaining some kind of equilibrium, is it driven by having other alive siblings that we use now as a source of support? Because we all have this similar faith; we both lost the beloved brother. So having more siblings gives you more opportunity for support. So in many ways, a larger sibling unit gives you more opportunity for support.
Favouritism in sibling relationships
Imi Lo: I see. You’ve answered it really thoroughly. Thank you. One last question. When it comes to favoritism, there are lots of myth around mothers usually like the boys, or parents usually like the child who’s in the same sibling order, or parents favoring the opposite sex. Are there any actual research, or maybe even anecdotally, what do you see?
Dr. Avidan So, first of all, sibling favoritism is a great research area and there’s some very good studies about sibling favoritism. It definitely is something for us to take into account, because, several studies coming out of the United States show that adults often remember sibling favoritism and how it impacts them as adults. So again, this is one of these things that doesn’t stay in childhood. What happens in childhood doesn’t stay in childhood, unlike Vegas. What happens in childhood doesn’t stay in childhood, and when it comes to siblings, it’s the same thing. So if we remember favoritism over children, it’s going to play out now in the way I engage my brother and sister. So, it’s an important topic. The question is, now, do constellation issues play out within this whole question about favoritism? Less than the gender and age thing, often it’s about the personality of the child at different points in development.
Dr. Avidan Mile…: So if you have a rambunctious child, and now he’s a teenager and he’s causing some trouble and he’s crossing boundaries, so now suddenly, just because of the developmental stage of the child and some of the challenges that the parents are facing, suddenly now, you know what, I really favor that one. So favoritism happens, unfortunately. We have to make sure that we’re not blatant about it, we don’t say things like, “Why can’t you be like your sister, or why can’t you be like your brother?” That just is very, very blatant about it. And we also have to be honest with our kids. So if kids say something about favoritism, parents often overreact and say, “Don’t say that. That’s not true. We love everyone.” And that just proves to the kid, “I just pressed the wrong button. I may be onto something.”
Dr. Avidan So not to get too nervous about this issue, be honest with kids. If he got something that you didn’t, why is that? Last week, you got something he didn’t. Just to minimize the tension about favoritism because it’s such an issue. I know some parents where they’re so obsessive that each kid gets the exact identical thing, even as adults. So parents in their 60s and 70s, and whenever they give a gift to one, everyone’s got to get the same gifts. That’s just as-
Imi Lo: People need different things.
Dr. Avidan Right. So, that obsession often just keeps that alive. And favoritism, just to bring down the tension about it and be more honest about it, and let kids develop independently.
Any Resources or suggestions to improve our sibling relationships?
Imi Lo: That’s really good. That’s normalizing things. Yeah. Okay. Well, final two questions, thank you so much. You come alive when you talk about this. And clearly, you do this day in and out, and it’s all backed up by research, really useful stuff. There are quite a bit of resources for parents who want to help with sibling rivalries of their children. But as far as I can see, there are really not a lot of resources for adults who want to work with their siblings. Like you said, sibling therapy, I don’t think many people have heard of sibling therapy. There’s couples therapy, there’s family therapy, there’s no sibling therapy. What are some of the resources that you can point people to? Maybe a book or websites, or any resources that you can think of, that you can point people to?
Dr. Avidan So, what happens when there aren’t really publicly available great books on the topic, is to really challenge your listeners to actually do some research on it.
Imi Lo: Find new…
Dr. Avidan It’s not so scary to go out there. And I advise people to get familiar with what’s known as Google Scholar. We’re not scholars. Yeah. Everyone could be a scholar. So Google is one place. But often, you get information that’s not necessarily very valid, and who knows what’s on there. So I advise just people that I work with; go to what’s called Google Scholar. How do you find it? Google Google Scholar, and you could actually read abstracts. Put in the keywords, adult sibling dynamics, and see what’s out there when thankfully, there’s a growing area of literature on this.
Dr. Avidan And by reading abstract, even of some studies, even if you’re not an academic and this is not your field, the abstracts are written often in layman’s term, in very easy ways, and that gives you some resources about where to go for it, and finding people in your area do sibling therapy. And again, today, with Zoom and globalization, how smaller the world is becoming, you could find a therapist on the other side of the world that does sibling dynamic issues, track them down, and that helps in really creating something better, because, again, it’s a lifelong gift. It’s unfortunate when your sibling is not offering you the support that they really could.
Imi Lo: Absolutely. So I guess your advice is, as much as possible, reconcile with them, do as much as you can, and if not, close the door, but always leave a possibility, because, really if harnessed, offers such great gifts, backed up by research, to mental health.
Dr. Avidan Well said.
Imi Lo: Thank you so much. So finally, we’re-
Dr. Avidan A pleasure.
Imi Lo: Absolutely. Where can people find you? I know you are between two countries.
Dr. Avidan If you Google my name, you go to my website, avidanmilevsky.com, and that gives you all the resources you want, reading material, studies that we’re doing. It’s worth it. Spending time on your sibling dynamic and really investing on a sibling relationship, again, it really is a lifelong gift.
Imi Lo: Thank you. That’s a good place to end. And yeah, thank you so much.
Dr. Avidan A pleasure. Thank you very much.
Imi Lo: And I really appreciate you for breaking things down. I mean, you advised me to go to Google Scholar, but really, listening to this conversation, you were able to break down complicated concepts like de-identification, into layman term, and explain it to us. Really appreciate it. Thank you so much.
Dr. Avidan A pleasure. Thank you. All the best.
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.