the story so far

How to Be an Adult Sibling

People have a tendency to feel that their struggles are very different from everyone who came before them. Perhaps that’s just part of the human fascination with being unique and unrepeatable and all that, but it can get ridiculous fast. There’s truth to the idea – I mean, no two lives are identical – but we also have to realize that as far as most things go, if we’re going through it, it’s been done before. Probably millions of times.

6When people use the differentiation between themselves and all others as a means of aloofness, that bothers me. You’re not that special. No one is. But from time to time I do appreciate when insight can be derived from putting what is common under the microscope. Take for example, the intricacies of navigating a sibling relationship as adults. Clearly, it’s been done before. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t take a moment to think about it.

Truth be told, this was something I sort of always took for granted. When my siblings and I were kids, we just assumed that we’d be just as close and have the same sorts of dynamic that we had then. That was naive, but why should we have thought any different? Even when we were fighting and thought we absolutely hated each other, our friendship was easy. It was always there, and there would never be a time when it wasn’t.

Or would there?

I think mostly we didn’t understand that we would become such very different people. We didn’t believe it when we were told that we’d want to move to different cities to do different jobs and that sometimes we’d go years without seeing each other. We definitely didn’t fully grasp it, even when we thought we’d come to understand it.


Sometimes it’s hard to remember that I’m an adult, let alone that I have five siblings who are all also technically adults, and two more who are half way done with high school and in their minds probably feel like adults. That leaves only one who by all accounts is a child.

In some ways, our dynamic hasn’t changed because we’re too close to each other to realize that the others have grown up. In some ways, our dynamic has changed because we’re just not who we thought we’d be. Of course every family will grow together or apart in different ways, and nothing that I’m saying here is really universal. But I do think that no matter how close (or not) we were to our siblings as children, the relationships that we can have with them now as adults can be even more than that. It seems to me that many people overlook this.

I think that to preserve these relationships and keep them as strong as possible, it’s important that we set some ground rules for ourselves. I’m not saying we should sit down and draw up lists of how we’re meant to behave with each other – I’m saying there are things we should be mindful of in our interactions, because it could keep a lot of doors from shutting in our faces. Unspoken rules, if you will.

  1. Even if your sibling is significantly younger than you, and as a kid it was okay to ‘boss them around’ a bit, you can’t really do that anymore. They are adults who can make their own reasonable decisions. If you want your siblings to continue to include you in their plans and tell you their harebrained schemes, you’ve got to have a little respect for their ability to be a mature adult. They aren’t stupid – don’t make them feel like they are.

  2. Realize that even if you never made a point of delineating between older and younger siblings at a young age because developmentally you were fairly close, sometimes once you’re adults and achieving completely different things in different fields, the contrast in achievements may become a mental stumbling block in your relationship. Don’t let achievements or lack thereof change the way you see your family. You’re not going to stay on the same level – you aren’t supposed to. Find other things to have in common, and celebrate each others’ victories.

  3. If you’re a younger sibling, just because you’re both now adults doesn’t mean that you have carte blanche to dismiss/disrespect/talk down to your older siblings. Show respect, even deference when appropriate. In many ways they paved the way for you, and you may not even know it. Trying to one-up an older sibling is no longer cute, it’s just rude.

  4. Keep in mind that the things you bond over will be different from what they were when you were kids. Perhaps you used to connect over playing the same sport or getting busted for throwing a party together when the parents were out of town. Those aren’t going to be your similarities now. Maybe you’re both struggling to find work that is both meaningful to you and will pay your bills – perhaps less fun but you may find that relating in this way can be so much more than it used to.

  5. We all know that relationships take work, and we realize this more and more as we mature. But we can be so focused on ‘working’ on our outside friendships and romantic endeavors that we forget that we still have to work at our familial relationships. We can’t just take them for granted, or we’ll look up one day and our older brother who was always just in the next room will have moved to the other side of the country and have a new phone number that he didn’t think to give you because you no longer talk regularly.

  6. There’s nothing wrong with trying to help a sibling out when it seems that they’re losing track of their lives or decisions. But we have to remember that sometimes just being there is enough. We also have to remember that empathy is stronger than sympathy in a situation like that, and that being some kind of pillar of reason and justice and a model example isn’t going to be what they need. They’re going to need their childhood confidante who talked through things with them on their own level, and who understood that fuck ups happen.

  7. Perhaps most importantly: as children our siblings made us laugh (and cry – but when they made us cry they seriously tried to make up for it by making us laugh later). I think that this ability is vastly underrated. I think that we have to relearn how to make our siblings laugh, and how to laugh along with them. Sure, this is (probably) no longer about fart jokes and teasing about crushes. Maybe it’s about laughing at ourselves and the blunders we make. Maybe sometimes it’s just the ability to laugh through the tears life sends us. And sometimes it has to be laughter about something absolutely, undeniably childish. It doesn’t matter at all what it is you’re laughing about. It just matters that you’re laughing together. It’s the best medicine.

Like I said, there may be nothing universal in this, but I think that there’s a small chance that there is. I know that if we keep these things in mind, our childhood pacts of unconditional love will be kept a lot more easily – our siblings, though far away, will always be right here – and if we manage to laugh and love enough, we might just live longer. If those aren’t enough reasons for you, then close your eyes for a second and try to remember your favorite memory with your siblings. I’ll bet you can’t choose only one.

Stay in touch. It makes all the difference.

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