Child Development Theory: Adolescence (12-24)
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Teens and Family Relationships: Siblings

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Sibling relationships will also change during this time. The extent of these changes will depend upon the number of siblings in the family, whether the siblings are older or younger than the adolescent youth, and the number of years between siblings.

sistersDuring early adolescence, youth may begin to distance themselves from their younger siblings, especially those siblings in the early and middle childhood years. As teens' interests change and mature, they may no longer feel that they have anything in common their younger siblings and that playing with them is just "too kiddy." As well, teens may become increasingly annoyed with their younger siblings' efforts to join them in activities because teens highly value their privacy, and relish the exclusive quality of their peer relationships. A younger sibling's persistent efforts to maintain a peer-like relationship with their maturing brother or sister is often experienced as intrusive.

Another issue for younger sibs and teens is the issue of trust. A teen recognizes that younger siblings maintain a strong alliance with their parents. This parent-sibling allegiance can create a sense of distrust for teens as they begin to exercise their independence and to distance themselves from their parents. Teens are aware that younger siblings may tell parents things they would rather be kept private, including rule infractions. Parents should not encourage or reward a younger child for information gained by "tattling" on their older sibling because this only serves to increase distrust and alienation among siblings. Parents may need to guide and assist younger siblings to respect a teen's privacy. Exceptions to the no tattling rule may need to be made in situations involving a teen's health or safety (drug use, suicide, etc.).

Relationships with older siblings can change as well. Younger teens may experience some jealousy and resentment toward their older siblings when they perceive an inequity between an older sibling's freedom and privileges, and their own. Of course, younger teens lack the maturity that is necessary to handle the same level of responsibility as their older sibling. Unfortunately, younger sibs rarely see it this way and instead insist, "It's not fair!" This can be frustrating for parents as they attempt to set limits that correspond to each child's developmental level of maturity.

While it may be tempting to acquiesce to the younger adolescent's wishes for increased freedom, parents will need to consider the needs and abilities of each individual child in order to achieve a proper balance between responsibility and freedom. Sometimes it can be helpful to enlist the help of the older sibling. For instance, suppose 14-year-old sibling Jose´ is told he cannot go to the rock concert and Jose´ complains, "It's not fair!" citing as evidence of the "unfairness" that his older brother Miguel went to a rock concert last week. It may be helpful if Miguel himself can remind his younger brother that he wasn't allowed to go to rock concerts when he was 14 years old either. This helps to highlight that the fairness of decision is based upon age and maturity, not parental favoritism.

By middle adolescence teens will typically become closer to their older and younger siblings who are nearest to their own age. By late adolescence, sibling bonds will continue to strengthen, especially if siblings had previously enjoyed a loving relationship when they were younger. By late adolescence, siblings without a large age difference will often grow closer to each other because they share similar experiences, joys, and stress. Due to their increased cognitive maturity, even teens with much younger siblings are less likely to be annoyed by their siblings, because these more mature teens now understand the needs and wants of their younger siblings. As a result, they can respond to their younger siblings with greater patience and compassion.

Although the majority of youth in late adolescence and early adulthood will eventually reconcile their differences with their parents and restore their relationships with siblings, there are some youth who do not. For a variety of reasons, these youth may decide that they are happier and healthier without including certain family members in their lives. However, merely exiting highly stressful, damaging, or abusive relationships cannot entirely reverse the lasting harm that often results from such unhealthy relationships. These youth may ultimately benefit from consulting with a mental health professional to prevent future mental health problems from developing such as depression, anxiety, alcohol and other drug use, and future interpersonal difficulties.

 




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