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Family Dynamics

4 Things That Break Siblings Apart, and 4 Reasons Reconciliation Is So Hard

3. Conflating blame and accountability.

Key points

  • Sibling estrangement can have childhood roots but it is most often set in motion by adult child/parent estrangement.
  • Bullying by a sibling is neither uncommon nor rare but it is often overlooked or ignored by parents as part of normal sibling interactions.
  • There is an enormous variation in how important sibling relationships are to any given individual.
Source: Dana Tentis/Pixabay
Source: Dana Tentis/Pixabay

While sibling relationships have the potential to be the longest-lasting connections an individual experiences during his or her lifetime, it’s equally true that despite our cultural elevation of sibling ties, only 41% of adults report a close relationship with siblings and 37% report a somewhat close connection, according to the Institute for Family Studies. In addition, 22% of adults report that they are not too close or not close at all.

In my own anecdotal research for my books Daughter Detox and Verbal Abuse, I've found that sibling rupture is rarely a stand-alone issue but is most usually a consequence of estrangement from one or both parents, whether that is initiated by the adult child (the most usual scenario) or set in motion by a parent or parents. Meghan’s story is typical of many; she is 50, and the mother of two.

“When I decided I had to estrange from my mother and, as a consequence of that choice, my father stopped talking to me, both my sister and brother sided with my parents and immediately stopped communicating. They denied my version of events—that my mother had scapegoated me for years and continued to verbally abuse me and then my children when I became an adult—and did what they could to spread rumors about me in my hometown. Mind you, my brother and sister were treated differently than I was—I never insinuated that they weren’t—but they nonetheless refused to acknowledge the validity of my claims.”

As I have written before, members of a family tend to defend and guard their personal narratives fiercely, especially if they are insiders, not outsiders as Meghan was in her family of origin.

It’s also possible for siblings—especially if the age difference between them is significant—to have very different experiences within the same family; sometimes, this is a function of parental treatment—one child is favored and the other isn’t—or a reflection of significant differences in siblings’ age and where the family unit finds itself (in a period of instability versus one of relative prosperity, for example).

A study of sibling estrangement conducted by Lucy Blake and others published in 2022 appears to confirm my observations, since the authors write: “That estrangement from a parent can lead to subsequent estrangement from a sibling is just one example of the ripple effect that estrangement can have on people’s lives and relationships.”

Common Causes of Sibling Rupture

It goes without saying that some brothers and sisters are sufficiently unalike in personality, temperament, and interests that any kind of meaningful relationship isn’t going to happen because all they have in common is their parents. That said, family dynamics do play an important role as the possible causes of strained, non-existent, or deliberately severed ties among adult siblings; following are some of the most common.

1. Parental differential treatment. You can call it favoritism or PDT, its acronym, as the experts do, but it’s been extensively studied and, yes, it puts the kibosh on sibling connection. Its effect is intensified if, along with a favorite, there’s also a scapegoated child. That was the case for Julie, now 55:

“My mother got pregnant with me her sophomore year of college and had to drop out; my father managed to finish but they had to move in with her parents who were both angry and ashamed. She waited tables and he worked menial jobs while he studied. The party line was that I ruined their lives and even though my dad went on to get a great job, buy a house, and they had a son when I was 6, the storyline never changed. My brother can do no wrong but I don’t think there’s ever been a family gathering where my mother hasn’t told the story of how she had to give up her dreams at 19. My brother and I see each other at Christmas and that’s it.”

2. Sibling “rivalry” is endorsed or not discouraged. You would have thought that the cautionary story of Cain and Abel in the Bible would have taken care of this foolish idea but, somehow, sibling rivalry passed into the lexicon of parents everywhere as “normal” and “expected,” and even “good for you.” It’s one thing for siblings to experience healthy competition—especially if they are evenly matched and the loser doesn’t get blamed or shamed—but quite another to believe that pitting one child against another is inspirational or motivational. It isn’t and, alas, parents do it often.

3. A history of sibling abuse (ignored or tolerated). The widespread acceptance of sibling rivalry also blinds far too many parents when it comes to identifying and stopping sibling abuse and bullying. In his classic 2012 book, Sibling Aggression, Jonathan Caspi notes that even professionals—doctors and therapists—often discount sibling abuse in the home. Sometimes, the bully is just down the hall.

4. Irreconcilable adult choices. While siblings may get along on the surface in childhood, it’s not unusual to have a distinct cooling or rupture in adulthood. Most often, it’s a reflection of the adult choices each sibling makes, which could include anything from educational paths, career decisions, choice of partner or spouse, sexual orientation, political affiliation, or just about anything else. Sometimes the “choices” cited as causes of estrangement are just reflections of one sibling’s not liking the other very much.

Why Healing Sibling Ruptures Can Be Elusive

Interestingly, while there is cultural pressure on an adult child to reconcile with a parent and cultural shame associated with parental estrangement, there’s very little of either associated with sibling estrangement. The bottom line may be that it might not seem urgent to fix the rupture. I know from personal experience that while I experienced loud pushback from the world generally about my estrangement from my mother, my estrangement from my brother elicited practically none.

Among the factors that may impede sibling reconciliation are:

1. Continuing to hew to the family narrative. Even the death of one or both parents may do little to change things; often, an adult sibling will take on the role the parent played and continue to scapegoat a sibling. Needless to say, money and inheritance may also play a role in continuing old storylines.

2. Unwillingness to discuss the past. Whether they express it as “let bygones be bygones," "let sleeping dogs lie,” or “the past is the past,” many people believe that revisiting childhood is a sign of immaturity or weakness; if “move on” is someone’s mantra, it’s very unlikely he or she is willing to discuss the dynamics of your family of origin. Since it takes two to tango, there’s not much to be done here.

3. Conflating blame and accountability. The strength of that Commandment—the "honor your mother and father" one—is hard to overstate and, yes, some adults just won’t go there. This is also bound up with the unwillingness to discuss the past.

4. Not everyone wants reconciliation. One of the interesting findings of the Lucy Blake et. al study was that while some respondents reported sibling estrangement as emotionally painful, others did not and said that “it had little or no ongoing emotional impact.” Some wished for reconciliation while others did not, which testifies to the variations in how sibling relationships define the self. I have personally never heard from an adult child estranged from a parent—and I include myself in that number—who would not have grabbed for a magic wand to fix things if it existed.

That appears not to be universal for sibling estrangement.

This post is drawn from ideas explored in my newest book, Verbal Abuse: Recognizing, Dealing, Reacting, and Recovering.

Copyright © 2023 Peg Streep.

Facebook image: Motortion Films/Shutterstock


Blake, Lucy., Becca Bland, and Alison Rouncefield-Swales,.(2022). Estrangement Between Siblings in Adulthood: A Qualitative Exploration. Journal of Family Issues, 0(0).

Caspi, Jonanthan. Sibling Aggression: Assessment and Treatment. New York: Spring Publishing Company, 2012.

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