Having a sister is great… until it isn’t. With competition and rivalry a natural part of growing up with siblings, how does that change as you become adults?

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Having a sister is great… until it isn’t. With competition and rivalry a natural part of growing up with siblings, how does that change as you become adults?

My Reading Room
My Reading Room

When it comes to family planning, most parents want their children to have siblings. The traditional idea is that each child will have a ready playmate… and that there will be one more person to help look after the parents when they get old.

A 2004 study in Ohio also showed that nursery-age children with siblings get into fewer fights, made friends more quickly and kept said friends for longer. But having someone relatively close to you in terms of age can also be problematic. Says Jean Shashi, Director of Relationship Matters, “Intense competition between siblings can possibly lead to an individual’s overcompetitiveness, unhealthy levels of stress and maybe lower self-confidence.”

Interestingly, Jean notes that there are no conclusive studies that place sibling rivalry as the cause of such effects. “Instead, more attention has been given to the influence of a sibling or parents’ differential treatment on the development of an individual, rather than the direct impact of sibling rivalry.”

Jean notes that comparisons from parents can start as early as when the child is 18 months and last through adulthood. It manifests in many ways, “from who begins to walk first to who has better [grades in school], the biggest house, the most money, the best car, the best spouse, the most number of children and so on.”

Jean adds that a parent’s biased treatment or labelling of each child as the ‘academic’ one or ‘creative’ one can “lead to self-esteem issues or preconceived notions that limits a child’s abilities.”

Playing favourites

In an article in Psychology Today, Professor Suzanne Degges-White cites research that lists the three general patterns for sibling closeness: 1) they’ve always been close, 2) closeness has changed over time and 3) they’ve never been close. She adds, “Ideally, this relationship would be open to change as siblings grow up and mature... However, early rivalry can create a bitterness in the family system that can take its toll on any future efforts to become close.”

Sometimes, parents can be the main cause of this unhealthy dynamic. Sarah*, 25, recalls how differently her parents treated her when her younger sister came along four years later. “Even today, they treat us differently. They see her as more of a high-flyer and more independent. So even though she’s in school and I’m working, she doesn’t have a curfew; whereas at 25, I still have to be home by 11pm,” she says.

While the stereotype is that the eldest child is the parents’ favourite, this was not the case for her. “As the irst child, I had a lot more restrictions than my younger sister,” says Sarah. “I felt like when my sister was born, my parents barely cared about me anymore. It had a big impact on me as a child.”

Now, as adults, the differential treatment is less of an issue. However, Sarah still has to deal with her sister’mood swings. “She has a really volatile temper,” says Sarah. “If she’s in a bad mood, she won’t communicate with anyone – including my parents. But if she isn’t, then it’s all right. I’ve accepted that there’s no point waiting for her to be in a good mood. I used to get easily hurt by her attitude, but I realise now there’s no point in feeling that way. So when she’s in a good mood, we talk, and if not, I just let her be.”

If your relationship with a sibling borders on toxic, Jean’s advice is to remember your own worth as an individual outside of any family ties. “Giving oneself more gentle encouragement and less self-criticism will build self-confidence that can withstand comparisons.” 

"A study in the Journal of Individual Psychology found that people tend to form relationships with partners who are of the same birth order as they are."

Alone but not lonely?

Studies have shown that children who grow up with siblings tend to have many advantages over those without. But does that mean only children have it bad? Not necessarily.

In an article for Psychology Today, psychologist Carl E Pickhardt says only children can take greater joy in non-sibling relationships, like with their parents and other adults. “It is this sense of partnership with parents and social inclusion in their world that creates a primary friendship that is powerfully influential as the child quickly imitates their older ways, becomes verbally and socially precocious, developing adult-like characteristics at an early age,” he says.

Says Ann, who is an only child: “I have always been quite happy even as a young child to be on my own. There were times when I felt like it would have been nice to have a playmate, but then I just played with my neighbours instead!”

Coco says she’ll up to always look sisters Cheryl and Chantel.
Coco says she’ll up to always look sisters Cheryl and Chantel.

Healthy relations

At the same time, a little rivalry between siblings can be healthy. Coco, 25, grew up with two older sisters and while she admires them, she admits she used to get into fights with them from time to time. “My oldest sister Chantel is seven years older than me, and she’s the louder, more rebellious one. Our middle sister Cheryl is quieter.” She says that Chantel has always been regarded as “the pretty one” and that was something that both younger girls had to live up to.

But she adds that, “Cheryl was the smart one; she did really well in her O­Levels and in Polytechnic, so I looked up to both of them when I was growing up. Even today, I try to find a balance between who they are, and who I am.”

Coco also admits that both her sisters believe that she was more “blessed” than them as the youngest child. “Both of them say my father was a lot less strict by the time I was born, and I also had all these hand-me-down clothes from my sisters that I could wear. I never wanted for clothes!” she says with a laugh.

Birth order matters

Whether you’re the eldest, middle or youngest, birth order can have a big impact on your personality and behaviour. “Parenting and human behaviour expert Dr Gail Gross says middle children are typically peacemakers and negotiators,” says Jean. “They also tend to be more vocal about having their needs met, because the attention of their parents may have been focused elsewhere when they were kids.” 

According to Dr Gross in an article for The Huffington Post, firstborns are likely to be high achievers who are more well-behaved than their siblings, because they’ve had so much attention from their first-time parents. Meanwhile, the youngest tends to have more freedom than the other siblings and are usually more independent.

Being around their older siblings might also mean they have a more mature outlook compared to their peers. “I was always the annoying kid who hung out with her sisters’ friends,” says Coco, who shared a room with her sisters for many years. She thinks that growing up with older sisters has affected her views on career and relationships. “While a lot of people my age worry about their grad trips and stuff, I find myself more focused on my career. My best friend is also Cheryl’s age, and the men I date tend to be older as well.” She says it’s because she wants to date someone who is mature and who can teach her something about life or work experiences. 

Studies show that at least 80 percent of siblings over age 60 enjoy close ties with one another, and that sister-sister pairs are the closest while brother-brother pairs the most competitive.

Photography Veronica Tay Assistant Photographer Phyllicia Wang Art Direction Leong Li Yuan Makeup and Hair Valerie Yves Text Karen Fong. *Name has been changed.