Sibling relationships

Sibling relationships

Sibling relationships are crucial during family therapy. We distinguish between the so-called "sick child" and "healthy child".  When parents come to the visit only with the “sick” or “healthy” child, the child is usually irritable. When all children come, the “healthy” child will say something that will provide a more accurate description of the symptom. The participation of the so-called “healthy siblings” in the therapy is always very helpful and plays a hugely important role in overcoming family crises in therapy. For the therapy to succeed, it is essential to include the development needs and necessities of the “healthy siblings”.

Studies show that the number of children in the family is an important factor. In multi-children families, lower rates of neuroticism in children were found (as a personality trait).

The order of birth and the place in the family determine certain behaviours and tendencies in children.

“Firstie”, the first child in the family, usually has to learn that it is not alone in the world and should have consideration for other people. Often manages the siblings and plays leadership roles in adult life. The “Firstie” often has a close bond with the father; their life is significantly impacted by the way the parents approached their firstborn.

“Number Two”, the second child usually forms a closer bond with the mother, has lower tolerance for separation and is more emotional than the firstborn; the second child needs to be listened and understood.

“Number Three”, the third child is a reflection of the relationship between the parents. It observes closely the goings-on in the family and more frequently than other children bears the parents’ incomplete mourning of abortion, miscarriage or death of other children.

“Number Four”, the fourth child stabilises the family and is often a person of action who does not differentiate between what they the think and what they do; the fourth child suffers when there are secrets and silence in the family.

“Number Five”, the fifth child is lively and suffers when the parents are boring and unenthusiastic; they are often the “family philosopher”. The fifth child needs movement and freedom.

“Number Six”, a family type who avoids conflicts; curious; eternal teenager. Loves to do something for a greater good, may suffer from low self-confidence.

“Number Seven” is the “Firstie” who matured and grew up. Values thinking and spiritual virtues, may avoid responsibility.

Many observations show that all of us, regardless of our number in the birth order, in our lives and subsequent life cycles directly or indirectly reflect the events that occurred in the families of their parents, as well as between the parents during the so-called “Plan/Goal Period”.  The PLAN/GOAL approach originates from Recall Healing.

The Plan/Goal Period covers 18 months before the conception, the conception, pregnancy, birth and first year of life. All important events in the lives of both families are recorded in the child’s energy space.

The relationship between the siblings is the longest we experience in our lives. It may be very close, but it may also be hostile. An extreme example of sibling hostility is the story of Kane and Abel. In this story, it is not the parents’ love and the envy of it that pushes one of the brothers to murder, but the rejection by somebody infinitely more important. One has to wonder why the Firstborn Son finds it so difficult to lead an “exemplary life without sin”. Perhaps the firstborn child carries a shadow of the given family, living in a given culture?

Let us now move to discussing some of the observations, conclusions and hypotheses.

The consequences of sibling separation:

The correct separation process is founded on maintaining the bond with the other person, upholding their status in the family and staying in touch.  An incorrect separation happens when e.g. somebody is rejoicing that the other person has left the family home, takes over their room, gains a privileged position in the family, keeps the other person’s possessions, takes their good name and defames them, or when the person that has left is not mentioned any more.

According to Bert Hellinger, the absent family member is later represented by the member that was born later.

If the mother or father failed to handle the separation with their respective siblings, the consequences for their children may include:

  • A child that does not maintain social contacts.
  • A child that is greedy and slanders others.
  • A child that is unable to express love.
  • A child that is too close to the siblings of e.g. the mother, and forms a coalition with their uncle or aunt in opposition to the father. Hostility towards the partner is manifested by bribing the child and forming a coalition with it.

Loss of siblings through:

  • Divorce
  • Illness
  • Accident
  • Abortion
  • Miscarriage

Sibling separation by divorce

Many tomes were written on that subject and it appears that a divorce always affects the siblings. Separated siblings, allocated to “different parents”, often compete on who is better off, who goes to a better school, who goes to more exciting holidays, etc. The child may identify with the sex of the parent with whom it grows up, may find it difficult to solve a loyalty conflict towards the parent with whom it lives. As a result, in adult life such children may have difficulties in finding a partner. In men, this would be called the “Peter Pan syndrome”.

Sibling death

always affects other children; however, the greater the family’s ability to cope with the loss, the less drastic the consequences. Sometimes the child that survived the death of its siblings, acts as a substitute of the deceased and tries to be both children at once, e.g. by outstanding achievements or supplementing their identity with certain aspects of the deceased sibling's personality.


Accidents are often a reiteration of sudden events from the Plan/Goal Period of the parents and grandparents (18 months before conception, the moment of conception, pregnancy, birth, and towards the end of the child’s first year of life.

In adapting to the consequences of an accident, the family may choose the “nothing happened” strategy, where the deceased child’s room is duly renovated, there are photos on the walls, the books are left intact and their plate is still on the table. It is difficult to tell the real from the unreal. The surviving child may feel terribly abandoned and guilty.

Loss of siblings through abortion

 An abortion usually entails difficulties for the mother to cope with the situation. Feelings of guilt and self-punishment are often numbed by alcohol, compulsive eating, self-neglect and other self-destructive tendencies, including deliberate self-harm and sexual disorders. Underneath this façade, anger is boiling and fury directed at the father’s child and sometimes redirected to one of the surviving children. The surviving children bear the consequences of the parents’ unreconciled grief, the consequences of their conflict and the consequences of the parents' fear of condemnation and exclusion (e.g. if someone finds out about the abortion). The children keep the parents alive by behavioural disorders and somatic symptoms (e.g. allergies, dermatitis, asthma). It seems that after an abortion, miscarriage is more frequent in subsequent pregnancies.

Interestingly, a woman who has had abortion in her previous relationship may feel hateful towards her new partner's child from a previous relationship, projecting her aggression towards the partner and herself onto the child.

Loss of sibling through miscarriage

The siblings usually cannot wait for a little brother or sister, so after a miscarriage they have to cope with both the loss of sibling and their parents' grief.

Often, the parents’ expectations of the children born after a miscarriage or adopted are very high and impossible to satisfy. The children born after a miscarriage are rebellious, join subcultures to show that their parents' standards are impossible to meet.


Sibling relationship in the case of one child’s illness

  • anorexia,
  • autism,
  • bipolar disorder.


A healthy child is left to its own devices, as the parents’ attention is usually focused on the sick child. The “healthy” child is left alone and the parents often expect much more of it. The child might experience the loss of the parents’ attention as a separation or abandonment. For instance, a younger brother has been having problems at school for several years, is finding it difficult to adapt and his parents are frequently called by the school. The older sister who goes to the same school is ashamed of her brother and is sorry for him, eventually taking up the role of her younger brother’s guardian. As her brother's guardian, she fails constantly trying to control his behaviour at school. The girl loses her independence, becoming part of her brother’s therapy. This situation often leads to disorders in the supporting child, e.g. to an anorexia dynamic (conflict with the mother who insists on maintaining the girl’s room in perfect order, plus a territorial conflict, that is, bearing her brother's insufferability without the right to express any feelings on the situation).

Often, the so-called healthy sibling becomes invisible, getting out of everyone's way, learning to neglect its needs and sometimes using numbing substances (alcohol, marijuana, food…).


In the families with an autistic child, there are often no siblings at all.

An autistic child releases the family from strong aggressive impulses and often of the secret it is carrying. A “healthy” child may then take over the depressive impulses, the guild and the low self-esteem.

What the so-called “healthy” child is confronted with is the difficulty to experience its own happiness in the face of its sibling’s autism. The healthy child experiences a psychological conflict that can be worked through in a constructive way.

Bipolar disorder

If the sibling suffers from a bipolar disorder, maintaining contact is difficult since the child with diagnosed manic disorder is focused on itself.  Sometimes, one sibling may be maniacal and the other depressive. In the families with a bipolar disorder history, it is not uncommon to find events such as packing and moving away in twenty minutes, death and loss during moving, lies about the father of the children, etc.


  • envy
  • lack of knowledge about the sibling
  • step-sibling’s illness
  • sibling death


When one of the parents starts a new family, the children from the previous relationship may feel abandoned and envious of the new children. When there is an “illegitimate” child in the family who is kept a secret, the children from the “legitimate” relationship may create an imaginary friend with whom they communicate and consult.   If the child from the legitimate relationship goes to school and meets its father's child from a relationship with another woman, this causes significant shame and aggression towards the step-sibling. This is aggression between the parents projected to the step-siblings.

An illustration of the step-siblings relationships is the story of Joseph and his brothers in the Bible.

The brothers are hostile towards the youngest son, since Joseph has been their father’s favourite. Their hostility is fuelled by the fact that Joseph told his father that his brothers were spoken ill of, and his ability to dream.

Step-sibling’s death

It appears that, in the case of a step-sibling's death, the dynamics may be similar to the death of a full sibling.   One of the parents may be absent and the surviving child stabilises that parent by its behaviours and symptoms.

Relationship between twins

Usually, the relationship between twins is stronger that between other siblings.

A greater tendency towards twin pregnancies is found in the families of mothers who have experienced conflicts for land or with neighbours, and also if such conflicts were experienced by their mothers and grandmothers. Also, the conflict with siblings for the inheritance increases the probability of twin pregnancy.

The twin pregnancy may be a consequence of what was happening during the PLAN/GOAL period.

Twin pregnancy may be an expression of a subconscious willingness to give children to two men.

If one of the children is adopted

A child can be adopted, if its parent dies or gives up parental rights. In the case of the parents’ death, the child feels abandoned as a result of fate; in such cases, the bond with the adoptive parents is stronger, but the child may experience worse moods.

If the biological mother treats her child instrumentally, e.g. “I cannot afford to have it and raise it, it will get in my way of life”, then the child will be passive and fatalistic, and will not believe that it could achieve something.

If the biological mother treats the child subjectively, i.e. “I could manage to raise it but I'm deciding to give it away”, then the child will be more active, especially in terms of professional achievements.

An adopted child brings to its adoptive family its entire family system, family memory and its biology. Psychologically, the adopted child identifies with its adoptive family. It may adopt the behavioural patterns of the adoptive family, especially in the case of early adoptions. Nevertheless, an adoptive family is always a substitute of a biological family.

Adopted children often have difficulties in understanding space and are frequently diagnosed with dyslexia. If the language of the biological family differs from that of the adoptive family, the children may experience problems in recognising the subtleties of the language and culture in which they grow.

Adoptive families may mistake attachment with love. If the adoptive parent needs love from the child, this could be very problematic. It is the adoptive parent that serves the child and its system.

If the child does not know that it is adopted, it may project its entire feeling of abandonment on the adoptive parents. Children are adopted by couples who have difficulties in conceiving or carrying the pregnancy. When a child enters the family, the anxiety level might be reduced resulting in the conception of a biological child. If a biological child appears in the family, all dynamics between the parents and the children are enhanced.