Blog 28: Sister and Brother Growing up

Written by Jim Sheehy

Up to age of eighteen, and sometimes older, how we are seen by others and how we see others is very much influenced by family.  In this presentation, I am focusing on siblings and reflecting on their impact on a child and teenager.  If I’m an only child or the middle child of 10, the twin or the adopted /fostered additional child – each personal experience is so varied and random.  How significant are sisters and brothers for the young adult emerging and making sense of reality after 18 years of living under the same roof with ‘my tribe’.

If an only child with 1 or 2 adult parents or guardians, the benefits include the undivided and uncontested attention from carers, the solitary nurturing of imagination and creativity to replace the ‘rubbing off and against’ sisters and brothers.  At school, when children compare and contrast each other’s family structures, the only child can feel different and wonder what s/he loses or gains by not having a sibling.  They may have had multiple play-days with children but this sister / brother dynamic is unique.  The only child hasn’t missed out in being loved but they sense the loss of ‘looking after and looking up to’ which is the sibling dynamic – looking after in protecting and guiding the younger sibling, looking up to in having older siblings as models and mentors.  Cousins can be important for only children as extended stays in their homes help them ‘match up’ with a cousin and have a taste of what sibling-life is like.

Switch then to a middle child of 10 and the costs / benefits of this family make-up.  Certainly, it will shape and impact their identity very significantly.  When I work with adults as they review their birth family experience, what often emerges is how the awareness of themselves as special often came with a cost – it wasn’t perceived subconsciously by the child as being unconditionally loved.  What are these terms and conditions?  Usually, to get the attention the child desperately craves, s/he accepts a role.  The range of roles makes up the stuff of drama: carer / protector / responsible oldest sibling, scapegoat / black sheep / angry / cheeky and stubborn embarrassing and difficult teenage child, the good looking / sporty / intelligent / practical / sensitive / artistic child, the different child / maverick /  special needs.  And roles are okay and natural as long as every so often, the child has time out from the role and allowed to feel more than the label life has assigned them. 


So, the angry child or teenager will be open at the right time for Mum or Dad to sit somewhere and begin: ‘Sometimes, I notice you explode and I wonder what has happened to trigger that?  You feel you’re not being respected. … I get that, but have you figured out for yourself what you feel isn’t fair?’  So, the parent is letting their child know that they love him / her with their anger but also that they know, accept and celebrate their child for lots of other reasons.

Take the girl who is older sister to a younger brother with autism.  Naturally, the older sister will assume the role of carer / protector / play-friend which is fantastic.  But, there will inevitably be times when the girl is sad because her brother is treated meanly by other children or is non-verbal and can’t have a real sibling chat, or angry because she has to move school and lose friends because that school can’t facilitate her brother’s special needs, or worried about the future and who will look after her brother when Mum or Dad get sick and aren’t around.

I have a favorite phrase which I use with clients, particularly the young ones who think the label or role they carry is burdensome and holds them back: ‘What makes you different is what will make you exceptional’.  So, can the teenager who is known as angry discover another part of himself that says to the angry part: ‘I am the part that can be sensitive and hurt, I am the part that knows pain and will learn to speak skilfully and honestly about feeling sad and lost, I am the part that will use my pain and anger to name and challenge persons and situations that cause unnecessary pain and loss.’   This conversation and transformation make this teenager EXCEPTIONAL.  

Or the girl with an autistic brother who is invited to discover a part of her that says: ‘I am the part that sees your heart, and how you know the language of the heart – when it’s ripped with sadness when things seem unfair, imprisoned being so helpless in improving his condition, how in the silent gesture and touch you communicate with your brother’s inner special world and you connect as one – and the part that can approach life’s diversity and refuse to be prejudiced.’  This conversation and transformation makes this little girl EXCEPTIONAL.  

Aged around 13, peer friends are crucial in filling in and rounding off whatever we find absent or lacking at home.  It’s another opportunity for the child teenager to experience him / herself as special, separate, in control, supported and challenged.  There is a real conversation as the ‘teenager among friends’ crosses the threshold and discovers if ‘teenager at home’ syncs or clashes.  This is identity-forming as the teenager simply asks: ‘Can I be me, the same authentic me, at home and outside home?’  Parents and siblings will have to change in accepting this ‘alien being’, a far cry from the child of innocence and compliance they once knew.  

So, at 18, when we leave the family setting, the young adult can have warm or sad feelings.  There will be later stages in life when we reflect at a distance on what it was like growing up as an only child, twin, middle child etc.  We usually mellow and are more realistic about the constraints that are part of family life: financial, social, cultural etc.  Relationships with siblings evolve, sometimes drawing us closer, other times keeping our distance.  That slice of life, however, when, for the first 18 years, we lived under one roof and shared young life and love is forever part of who we are.

Presentations on the 4 zones are also available on video and blog through the website – see

If you enjoy the material, please get the word out there among those you care for.  You can contact me with comment or suggestion via Facebook at Jim Sheehy Therapy and on Twitter @jimsheehy2017

Take care,

Clarifying Disclaimer:  While the material I am presenting is well-researched and suitable for the general population, I believe each person’s issues and needs are unique.  I encourage you to seek medical and/or therapeutic support if you struggle with an issue or condition that negatively and seriously impacts your life.




Contact me:

Jim Sheehy M.Ed. MIACP
Co Donegal 
F94 WV99

087 2137922


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