Social support systems dramatically change for young adults when they move out of their family home, go to college, begin their careers, and/or engage in long-term romantic relationships. At this time of life, young adults that once relied on parents’ support are likely to turn toward their peers and romantic partners as their key sources of support.
Sibling relationships in young adulthood are an often overlooked source of social support. Recent mental health scholarship has increasingly recognized the benefits of turning to siblings for social support.
Newfound independence often gives young adults a new appreciation for their relationship with their families, particularly their siblings. As siblings age, especially when they are no longer in the same household, they can appreciate one another as peers and friends and their contact becomes less conflictual, voluntary, and more intimate.
During this phase of life transition, young adults are experiencing increased struggles with loneliness. This is partly due to several societal changes including a cost-of-living crisis, decreased rates of community and civic engagement, and the ongoing social impact of COVID-19. Siblings, facing the challenges of young adulthood together, can emotionally support one another and share their common history (Audet et al., 2021).
Lonely? Reach Out to Your Sibling.
Young adults who have a strong social relationship with their adult siblings tend to have significantly higher levels of self-esteem and life satisfaction and lower levels of depression and loneliness. Young adults experienced these psychological benefits even if they lacked strong friendships with their peers.
A strong relationship with a sibling looks like the ability to confide in, reassure, care for, and enjoy things with one another (Milevsky, 2005). If you are feeling disconnected or want help navigating a decision, think about giving your sibling a call.
Navigating Sibling Conflict
As some of us may know, navigating adult sibling relationships is not always pleasant. Siblings are going to disagree, but if you and an adult sibling are engaged in a prolonged conflict or are hostile towards one another it may be helpful to think about this hostility within a larger context.
Family Systems Theory points to intergenerational family patterns as the root cause of hostility between siblings. If you have a hostile relationship with your adult sibling, it may be helpful to identify if you are dealing with a family pattern. You can do so by asking yourself the following questions:
What was my relationship with my sibling as a child? Was it conflictual then?
What do my parents’ relationships with their siblings look like?
Was I compared to my siblings or encouraged to be more like them or vice versa?
When we were children, did I feel that I had to compete with my siblings for my parents’ attention or approval?
How was conflict modeled in my parents’ relationship?
Was I (and am I) allowed to have different opinions, thoughts, and ambitions from the wider family?
Opening the Lines of Communication
If you and an adult sibling were often compared to one another as children and/or currently feel that you are in competition with one another, it may be helpful to discuss together how you learned to navigate conflict and wider family norms surrounding it.
Family patterns are intergenerational so it could be helpful to reflect on what family norms you would like to carry forward and which are best to intentionally leave behind (Milevsky, 2018).
Lastly, rewrite the narrative. Celebrating your differences and encouraging one another to have independent identities, with different interests, skills, and values will dramatically shift your competitive narrative (Feinberg et al., 2003).
Healthy sibling relationships in young adulthood can contribute in powerful ways to your overall mental health and wellness. If you would like help navigating or improving your relationship with your adult sibling, please reach out to learn more about sibling therapy.
Audet, É. C., Levine, S. L., Holding, A. C., Koestner, R., & Powers, T. A. (2021). A Remarkable Alliance: Sibling Autonomy Support and Goal Progress in Emerging Adulthood. Family Relations, 70(5), 1571–1582. https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12562
Feinberg, M. E., McHale, S. M., Crouter, A. C., & Cumsille, P. (2003). Sibling Differentiation: Sibling and Parent Relationship Trajectories in Adolescence. Child Development, 74(5), 1261–1274. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8624.00606
Milevsky, A. (2005). Compensatory patterns of sibling support in emerging adulthood: Variations in loneliness, self-esteem, depression, and life satisfaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22(6), 743–755. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407505056447