Your sibling relationships are some of the first social connections you form as a child. Hopefully, these are lifelong bonds of love and support unrivaled by other interpersonal relationships.
But that’s not always the case. Sibling relationships are complex and highly affected by the behavior of the adults that raise you. If they compare you and your siblings, this can drive a wedge between an otherwise happy family.
Sibling comparison and the desire to prove yourself to your parents can have unintentional impacts well into adulthood. You might find it affecting your relationships both inside and outside the family dynamic, how you do your job, and your overall well-being.
The first step to overcoming the effects of comparisons between you and your siblings as an adult is understanding what’s happening. That way, you can move past it and live your life on your terms.
Why do parents compare their children?
According to a sibling comparison study by Alex Jensen in the Journal of Family Psychology, comparison is a natural inclination among parents. It’s a tool often used to reassure themselves that their child is progressing normally through the phases of infancy and toddlerhood. If their first child walked at 14 months, they might worry if their second child hasn’t started yet when this marker passes.
As they age, some parents compare their children to others to motivate certain behaviors through healthy competition. Opinion is split over whether comparison is harmless, but it’s understood that, in some circumstances, competition isn’t healthy. Competitive feelings between siblings can pit one child against another. Or siblings might feel a favored child has created a standard they can’t meet.
But no matter the source, sibling comparison can cause competition and anxiety. The child who meets parental expectations receives love and approval, and those who don’t might struggle with feelings of loneliness and rejection.
Ultimately, children facing comparison to their brothers and sisters, especially in situations of disappointment or judgment, could develop issues that affect them throughout adolescence and into adulthood.
What are the effects of sibling comparison?
Like most, you probably grew up with a sibling, since about 80% of American children under 18 have at least one. That relationship can be incredibly beneficial, helping you develop empathy, reinforcing positive social behaviors, and encouraging academic achievements via healthy competition.
The bonds between siblings can also be a source of familial support that parents can’t provide since, because of their age, they’re more removed from your experiences when you’re young.
But when parents undermine those fraternal bonds through comparison and competition, it can result in significant challenges, like the following.
Having a parent compare you unfavorably to another sibling can convey that you’re not good enough. Eventually, you may internalize this message, which can trigger mental health challenges linked to poor self-esteem, such as anxiety and stress.
Parents often label their children based on personal attributes. Athletic ability and academic performance are the most common, but there are more. These titles can include identifying a child as “the smart one,” “the sporty one,” or “the stubborn one.” The child might permanently integrate that label into their personality, establishing its lifelong influence.
This influence is especially apparent at school. That same Alex Jensen study found a correlation between parental beliefs and future academic success. Parents often believe that the older sibling performs better than the younger, even when accomplishments are similar. Over time, the study demonstrated a causal effect between this belief and a disparity of 0.21 GPA points between compared siblings that subsequently grew yearly.
When parents label children, kids feel pressured to live up or down to that expectation. A high-achieving “wonder kid” could struggle under the stress of constantly striving for success out of fear of losing their parents’ approval if they fail. This behavior could continue into the working world, compelling them to overwork. This makes it harder for them to create a healthy work-life balance and avoid professional burnout.
Sibling comparison often leads to conflict and rivalries between brothers and sisters. Unresolved, these can have extensive consequences, including:
Being perceived as someone who shows off and brags a lot
Constantly competing for parental attention
Pressuring parents to choose their side in sibling conflicts
Failing to treat their siblings as adults and equals
Treating their brothers and sisters as enemies
Sabotaging their siblings’ lives, relationships, and work
Belittling their siblings to make them feel inadequate
In adulthood, these behaviors can cross over into sibling bullying, further undermining your mental health and damaging family relationships.
Sibling rivalry in adults
A OnePoll survey found that in about half the cases, sibling rivalry resolves itself once you reach adulthood. According to the same survey, if it’s still present as an adult, 15% of people believe competing against their brothers or sisters helped them in their careers. Another 20% felt it helped them achieve more in their lives.
But it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes adult life can spark a resurgence of competitive feelings that reignite old conflicts.
Here are a few examples where sibling rivalries can negatively affect your adult life:
Weddings: Big — and pressure-heavy — family events like weddings can accentuate and open up relationship differences. Old rivalries you thought you’d resolved might rear their head and cause awkward or overwhelming confrontations.
Adult milestones: Graduating college, buying a new house, and getting a promotion are amazing achievements. But if your brothers or sisters reach them before you, you might feel the same childhood-instilled pressure to catch up.
Even if these aren’t priorities for you (maybe you’re focusing on academic achievements) you might feel resentful because you don’t like seeing them succeed. That emotion could negatively impact your relationship with your siblings or parents, depending on who’s applying the pressure or benefiting from the comparison.
Spouses: Sometimes, a case of sibling rivalry as adults can involve your romantic partner. Their job, education, and even their role in your household can all become points of contention. It’s especially true if your family holds to more traditional models of success that you don’t adhere to.
That added tension can affect all your relationships — your parents, siblings, and, most importantly, your partner. The toxic effects of sibling comparison can extend to them, so you’ll have to take steps to stand up for and protect their mental health.
Caring for elders: At some point, your aging parents will need help. With caregiving responsibilities comes new conflicts. Your parents might expect one child to take on a disproportionate part of the burden while giving another child a free pass.
If you’ve always struggled for their approval, you might accept more than you can manage as part of that ongoing pattern. Ultimately, when it comes time to decide about your parent’s welfare, these inequalities could result in conflict between siblings about what’s best for all concerned.
How to overcome sibling comparisons: 7 tips
Whether it’s deliberate or not, sibling comparisons hurt. And your relationships with your parents and siblings are important. To try and heal them, here are seven strategies that might help.
1. Try not to take it personally
Understand that if a parent feels closer to one sibling, it’s not because of anything you’ve done. Proximity, common personality traits, and other factors beyond your control could contribute to that bond’s strength.
And it’s likely their behavior isn’t malicious. Your parents probably aren’t even aware there’s a discrepancy. You could talk to them about how you’re feeling, and their behavior might change.
2. Find external support
If you’re not getting the love and acceptance you crave from your family unit, you can find support within your friendships or found family. You deserve to feel a sense of belonging with your chosen community.
Connecting with loving, respectful people who share your attitudes and ideals can do that. These relationships help you build your confidence and overcome the negative effects of comparing siblings.
3. Don’t engage
You don’t need to compete with your siblings. Instead, develop your own yardstick for success so you feel happy when they succeed and understand that their achievements don’t diminish yours.
And don’t blame them for being the favored child. If they continue to perpetuate your rivalry, it’s a sign that they’re struggling with their own parental approval issues.
4. Practice acceptance
You can’t control if or when your parents change their behavior. Accept that you might not receive as much support as your brothers or sisters and make peace with the situation.
Once you’ve accepted this, focus on and be grateful for the things your parents do offer you. While you’re at it, notice the love and support you receive from others, like friends, your spouse, and coworkers. These relationships can fill the needs your parents can’t.
5. Strengthen your family
If your life has moved forward and you’ve established your own family, invest your energy in providing your children with the love, acceptance, and support you missed out on. By focusing on sharing your life with them, you can begin to accept who you are and make peace with your parents’ idiosyncrasies.
6. Seek additional support
Parental favoritism, comparison, and sibling rivalry can have lasting effects well into adulthood. If you’re struggling with feelings of anxiety and depression or want to break the cycle with your own children but don’t know how, reach out to a mental health professional for help.
Family-of-origin issues are complex, and a therapist can help you untangle these problems so you can feel better about yourself and parent your children without letting your childhood struggles affect them.
7. Prioritize yourself
Sometimes, your best efforts aren’t enough to heal a rift between you, your parents, and your siblings. If they continue to deliberately cause you harm after you’ve drawn attention to the negative feelings resulting from their actions, give yourself permission to protect your mental health by limiting contact.
Celebrate your differences
Parents should celebrate sibling differences. Every unique characteristic brings something wonderful to the world.
As children, sibling comparisons can prevent you and your siblings from recognizing these special strengths. But as adults, with a bit of understanding and forgiveness, it’s possible to find some common ground and appreciate each other for the amazing people you are.
If you all reach a place of shared understanding, hopefully, you’ll be able to develop the loving and supportive relationship you want and deserve. In the meantime, take care of yourself.