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Can therapy help with sibling relationship problems?

adult siblings discuss options

After giving a community lecture on the importance of sibling relationships in adulthood, I received the following email:

Dear Dr. Milevsky,

I was at your recent lecture about the importance of siblings. How do you begin to repair sibling relationships now? We buried our father today, and throughout the weeklong mourning process, our nieces and nephews behaved remarkably, working together and consoling one another, while we, the adults aged 48 through 57, did not fare as well. Is there anything that can be done now?

Thank you,

Kristen’s question is an important one, because it shows how unresolved sibling tensions can show up during difficult times in very real ways.

The most enduring relationship a person can develop is with a sibling. Considering the usual closeness in age between siblings and the fact that they’re most often born into the same family household, they can bond for a lifetime. Psychologists and researchers are beginning to appreciate the sibling link and its critical role in psychological well-being throughout life.

Studies show that people with close sibling relationships are happier, enjoy greater psychological well-being, and build stronger friendships than those without warm sibling relationships.1 Closeness with siblings can also offer huge benefits as we get older and need social support.

On the other hand, tension with siblings is often a core factor in adult instability. In addition to the drama that sibling problems may invite into our lives, unresolved sibling problems often surface in very destructive ways after a parent dies.

How sibling tension affects us after parental loss

Losing a parent is a naturally painful experience. When there are underlying sibling tensions, the emotional experience of the death—on top of the greater amount of time families spend together before and after a major loss—can make an already difficult environment even more challenging.      

Considering the benefits of sibling support versus the harm of sibling hostility, you may be a candidate for sibling therapy if your relationship isn’t going well. Working with a therapist on repairing difficult interactions with your siblings can offer a gift of support in your adulthood, and it can help avoid painful issues that may come up after the death of your parents.       

Along with reducing tension and strengthening your bond with your siblings, this type of therapy can help provide an important source of support as you transition into older adulthood.

The benefits of sibling support as we age

Shifts in society have resulted in a growing number of older adults facing loneliness. Because of greater life expectancy, higher divorce rates, and lower birth rates, many people are now reaching older adulthood alone. Working to fix your sibling bonds in therapy—and even make them stronger—can help you and your siblings prepare to support each other more as you age.

Another positive outcome of repairing your sibling relationships is that it helps address the intergenerational transmission of sibling conflict. Children tend to imitate the dynamics between their parents and their parents’ siblings. So when you work with your own siblings to improve your relationship today, you’re also creating benefits for future generations.

About the author

Avidan Milevsky, PhD, LCPC, is an associate professor of psychology at Ariel University with more than 20 years of experience specializing in cognitive behavioral interventions. He practices as a psychotherapist at the Center for Mental Health in Beit Shemesh, Israel, and Wellspring Counseling in Towson, Maryland. His clinical research has produced more than 30 papers and six books, including “Will I Ever Be Happy Again?,” “Understanding Adolescents for the Helping Professional,” and “Sibling Issues in Therapy.” He is a columnist for HuffPost on well-being issues and has appeared as a guest expert on television and radio programs, including “The Takeaway.”