The Significance of Siblings

This article considers the relevance that has been attributed to sibling relationships from sociological/historical, research and psycho-analytical perspectives, questions whether the significance of the sibling bond has been underestimated and reflects on the implications for psychotherapeutic practice.

As an integrative psychotherapist, my understanding of individual development has been influenced largely by object relations theory, in which parental relationships provide the primary backdrop for understanding the human psyche, character formation and attachment style. It was while completing my MA dissertation research on sibling bereavement in 2008, that I discovered writings that highlighted the significance of sibling relationships. I was particularly interested in research by Szalita (1968) whose re-analysis of 37 patients illustrated that omission of an important early relationship, usually with a sibling, was one reason cited for dissatisfaction with previous analyses. Since qualifying as a psychotherapist, this exploration of the literature has encouraged me to reassess my practice. With several clients, it has prompted a deeper exploration or revisiting of relationships with siblings who have been invisible in the therapy room or who have attracted little more than a cursory mention. This refocusing of the therapeutic lens has created fresh lines of enquiry or resulted in new insights that seem to have energised the therapy in some way and made me aware that I may also have been underestimating the impact of the sibling bond in my own client work.

A Sociological/Historical Perspective

“Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply”  ~ Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, (1974/1814, p223).

Bank and Kahn (1982), who conducted one of the first extensive considerations of the sibling relationship, define the sibling bond as:

“a connection between the selves, at both the intimate and public levels, of two siblings: it is a fitting together of two people’s identities. The bond is sometimes warm and positive but it may also be negative” (p15).

They point out that many rituals exist in Western culture to mark important changing points for parents and their children e.g. baptism, circumcision, confirmation, bar-mitzvah and graduation.  Similarly, there are marking rituals to celebrate and legalise the bond between husband and wife e.g. engagements, weddings and divorce. Despite this, no such rituals exist to celebrate sibling bonds nor are there legal means to make or break them.

Valerie Sanders (2002) suggests that the sibling relationship is a neglected area within literary criticism and history, despite the centrality that many writers have given to sibling relationships in fictional works, and concludes that this might be inevitable in an age that still concentrates its investigative energies on sexual relationships and the parent-child dyad. She highlights, however, that the brother-sister relationship assumed increasing significance in English literary and cultural history between the end of the 18th Century and the early 20th Century, being at its height in the 19th Century when brother-sister collaborative relationships were particularly active. She suggests that there are few major poets and novelists who fail to acknowledge the close bond with a favourite sibling and gives examples of siblings whose collaborative relationships generated literary outputs such as William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Charlotte and Emily Bronte.

Siblings 2A well-known exploration of the sibling bond is George Eliot’s (1860) The Mill on the Floss which is concerned with the love of blood siblings. However, Sanders (2002) also draws attention to the emergence of sibling rivalry in literature, which mirrored the position of men in relation to women during this period in history where the male child had a more privileged position by nature of his sex, education and position as automatic inheritor of the family fortune.

The Psychoanalytical Lens

Given the prominence of the sibling relationship in literary fiction during the period when psychoanalytic theory was emerging, one might expect to have seen this reflected accordingly. However, here too, siblings are not the point of focus.  This is reflected by Cicirelli’s comment:

“No theory exists that can account for changes in sibling relationships across the life span, sibling closeness, sibling caregiving and helping, sibling violence and abuse and so on” (1995 p222).

A key challenge in longitudinal sibling research appears to lie in the technical difficulties of conducting such research in terms of sample sizes and time span required to track the relationship throughout the different developmental stages. Cicirelli (1995) reflects on some of these challenges, the initial one being a question of defining ‘who’ is a sibling, ie full biological, half, step or adoptive?   The changing nature of the family unit over the past century resulting from divorce and remarriage has increased the prevalence of blended families where the membership boundaries are less clear, thus creating difficulties in research sampling. Nevertheless, sibling research is an expanding area and recent studies such as that by Edwards et al (2005) on 58 children aged 7-13 years, have illustrated that the sibling relationship can play an integral part in a child’s sense of identity.

Prophecy Coles and Juliet Mitchell are two psychoanalytical writers who have started to highlight the significance of the sibling bond. Coles (2003) questions why siblings do not feature as significant figures in psychoanalytical accounts of the inner world. While acknowledging that the idea of brotherly love is evident in some of Freud’s writing, as in the description of his quasi-sibling relationship with his nephew John, Coles suggests that Freud tends to view siblings as competitors for parental attention, thus normalising the idea of sibling rivalry.  Coles believes that Klein places greater emphasis than Freud on the efficacy of sibling love on the developing psyche, suggesting that siblings can promote emotional development and help the child to distance itself from the parents. Bowlby (1969) also acknowledges sibling significance, viewing siblings as potential subsidiary attachment figures who often contribute importantly to the development of personality and self esteem.

Mitchell (2003) provides another example of the suppression of the significance of sibling relationships in psychoanalytic literature. Referring to the Oedipus complex where the main thrust concerns Oedipus’s incestuous relationship with his mother and the killing of his father, she comments on the tendency in psychoanalytic theory to place greater emphasis on vertical, parent-child relationships as opposed to lateral relationships.

Impact of Sibling Loss

“Our brothers and sisters are there with us from the dawn of our personal stories to the inevitable dusk” ~Susan Scarf Merrell (1995, p15)

The impact of sibling bereavement is another area that has been overlooked by early psychoanalytical thinkers. Coles (2003) refers to the losses endured by Freud in childhood – the death of his younger brother Julius, his nephew John with whom he had a quasi-sibling relationship, John’s sister and Freud’s half brother, Emanuel. She suggests that Freud’s original records on the Rat Man (1995/1909 p315) reflect his inability to come to terms with Julius’s death when he admits to forgetting the memories relating to the death of Rat Man’s sister due to complexes of his own. Mitchell (2000) extends the idea of the effects of Freud’s brother on the development of psychoanalysis:

“This unacknowledged dead brother can be said to have ‘possessed’ the theory of psychoanalysis, ever present in the accounts but completely unintegrated into the theory or practice” (pg 239).

Coles (2003) illustrates a similar oversight in The Wolfman (1995/1918) where Freud’s assertion that Wolfman’s depression was due to illness when he was 18 is contradicted by Wolfman’s (1973) memoirs in which his depression is explained as stemming from his sister’s suicide. Coles (2003) suggests that Freud turned his back on the Wolfman’s attachment to his sister because it conflicted with his energy drive theory and the centrality he was to place on the Oedipus Complex.

Recent research into sibling bereavement highlights the diminished importance attributed to sibling losses yet demonstrates very clearly the impact of such losses, especially when occurring in childhood. A prominent research theme relates to what Doka (2007) refers to as ‘disenfranchised grief’, ie a person experiences grief which is not openly acknowledged, socially validated, defined as significant for the bereaved or publicly mourned. DeVita-Raeburn (2004), in her research findings from interviews with 77 survivor siblings, highlighted the tendency for the loss of bereaved siblings to remain unacknowledged by others and these findings were also confirmed by Fanos and Nickerson (1991) and Rosen and Cohen (1981).

While disenfranchised grief can arise due to misunderstandings regarding the way in which children grieve – a topic outside this discussion – it may also be linked to the relative unimportance awarded by society to sibling relationships  in comparison to parental or spouse relationships.

Sibling Impact on Self Identity

“A sibling may be the sole keeper of one’s core identity, the only person with the keys to one’s unfettered, more fundamental self”  ~ Marian Sandmaier (1994, p11).

Harris (1999) questions the research evidence on the ‘nurture’ assumption and affirms that, although parents will have a significant impact on child development in the early years, it is in fact the lateral relationships with siblings and peers that socialise children. This is echoed by Coles (2003) who believes that there is a relationship between a harsh superego and the experience of sibling cruelty, which suggests that parental power and authority are not the only determinants.

The impact of siblings on self-identity is illustrated by Schacter’s research on Sibling Deidentification (1976), which proposes that siblings share out traits amongst themselves in order to limit competition for parents’ attention, the idea being that the maintenance of a sense of self is dependent on the other types within the family. Sibling rivalry is therefore resolved by what Schacter calls the Cain Complex, ie siblings deidentifying with each other, in contrast to the Oedipus Complex where child-parent rivalry is assumed to be resolved by the child identifying with the parent.

Siblings 1This was illustrated beautifully in a recent Guardian interview (Hattenstone, 2009) with Serena Williams, the tennis player who talked about the different roles fulfilled by each sister in her family.

“We sisters all fit into particular roles. Tunde was the forgiver; she had a heart of gold. Isha was the caretaker; she looked after each of us. Lyn was our play pal; she was everyone’s favourite knockabout buddy. Venus was my protector…….. And me, I was the princess; I was everyone’s pet.”

The description of Venus as ‘protector’ is interesting given that she is also Serena’s key rival on the tennis court and thereby illustrates the broader dimensions of a sibling relationship that often remain overlooked by outsiders.

Bank and Kahn (1982) contend that siblings provide a child with a valued object representation from which he/she can gain sustenance and self esteem. The impact of sibling loss on self-identity is portrayed in DeVita-Raeburn’s research (2004) where one bereaved sibling had a sense that she was mourning the loss of herself and others would utter phrases like ‘he was my confidence’, ‘she was the one who understood me’, ‘he was the social one’. Some surviving siblings also assumed different elements of the roles left behind by the dead sibling. These findings reflect anecdotal evidence from therapists working with bereaved siblings, whose struggles with self-identity have manifested in constant striving to achieve or be popular combined with a sense also of ‘living for two’, i.e. trying to live their own life and that which the dead sibling might have lived.

Implications for Psychotherapeutic Practice

Given the oversights in psychoanalytical theory that have formed one of the foundations upon which psychotherapeutic practice is based, together with the research findings discussed, there appear to be two key considerations requiring attention to avoid perpetuating the blind-spot regarding the significance of siblings.

The first pertains to the theoretical psychotherapeutic standpoint that is adopted. It will be important to integrate our theoretical understanding regarding the impact of parent-child relationships on attachment style and personality development alongside the emerging findings which indicate how having a sibling or losing a sibling influence personality development and self-identity.

The second relates to psychotherapeutic process. Bank and Kahn (1982) suggest that parent-transference as opposed to sibling-transference interpretations are inevitable when the therapist assumes a parent-like, wise, omnipotent role which  may then engender in the client a childlike stance; helpless, and dominated by infantile feelings. Likewise, the neutral stance that predominates in more analytically-oriented therapists will often stimulate a parent-child dependency. Therefore, an approach that veers towards the humanistic, person-centred point on the spectrum may more readily facilitate the emergence of a sibling transference. Silverstone (2006) recounts how her relationship with a client, who was nurtured by elder siblings due to the emotional and intermittent physical absence of the mother, lacked vitality until she started to work with the sibling transference as the primary focus.

It is evident that the sibling literature highlights the limited attention that object relations theorists, historians and literary critics have attributed to the sibling relationship in the past. The development of psychoanalytic theory has tended to overlook the importance of the sibling bond in favour of the parent-child dyad and it is only in the last 30 years that the significance of siblings has been recognised.

This has prompted me to re-evaluate my approach and open myself up more to noticing and exploring sibling-related issues which clients may underplay or overlook. As a humanistic, integrative therapist who strives to balance the tension between the use of theory to inform alongside the phenomenological focus of the here-and-now, perhaps the one certainty I might safely bring to my work with clients is that, irrespective of the quality of a client’s relationship with a sibling, it may well be significant and deserving of attention.


Christina Sensale is an integrative psychotherapist working as an honorary staff counsellor at the Royal Free Hospital, London and in private practice. She also works within public and private sector organisations as a coach and workshop facilitator, specialising in leadership development, change management and career transition/outplacement.


Image: All Dressed Up But Nowhere To Go by an untrained eye



Austen, J. (1974) Mansfield Park, London: MacDonald (Original work published 1814)

Bank, S. and Kahn, M. (1982) The Sibling Bond, New York: Basic Books

Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment, Vol 1 in Attachment and Loss. New York: Basic Books

Cicirelli, V. G. (1995) Sibling Relationships across the Lifespan, New York and London: Plenum Press

Coles, P. (2003) The Importance of Sibling Relationships in Psychoanalysis, London: Karnac Books

DeVita-Raeburn, E. (2004) The Empty Room: Surviving the Loss of a Brother or Sister at Any Age, New York: Scribner

Doka, K. (2007) Death, Dying and Bereavement. Major Themes in health and Social Welfare, London & New York: Routledge.

Edwards, R., Hadfield, L. and Mauthner, M. (2005) Children’s understanding of their sibling relationships. National Children’s Bureau in association with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Eliot, G. (1860) The Mill on the Floss, Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons

Fanos, J.H. and Nickerson, B.G. (1991) Long-term effects of sibling death during adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Research 6: 70-82

Freud, S. (1909) Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis in Gay, P. (1995) Ed, The Freud Reader, UK: Vintage Books

Freud, S. (1918) From the History of an Infantile Neurosis (“Wolf Man”) in Gay, P.  (1995) Ed, The Freud Reader, UK: Vintage Books

Harris, J.R. (1999) The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. New York: Touchstone Books

Hattenstone, S. (2009) Interview with Serena Williams, There’s more to life than hitting a ball in The Guardian, 29 August 2009

Mitchell, J. (2000) Mad Men and Medusas. Reclaiming Hysteria and the Effect of Sibling Relations on the Human Condition. London: Allen Lane/Penguin Press

Mitchell, J. (2003) Siblings: Sex and Violence, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press

Rosen, H. and Cohen, H.L. (1981) Children’s reactions to sibling loss. Clinical Social Work Journal, 9: 211-219

Sanders, V. (2002) The Brother-Sister Culture in 19th Century Literature: From Austen to Woolf, Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave

Sandmaier, M. (1994) Original Kin, New York: Dutton

Scarf Merrell, S. (1995) The Accidental Bond: How Sibling Connections Influence Adult Relationships, New York: Ballantine Books

Schachter, F.F. (1976) Sibling Deidentification. Developmental Psychology 12(5): 418-427

Szalita, (1968) Reanalysis, Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 4: 83-102

Silverstone, J. (2006) Siblings pp225-246 in Coles, P. (Ed.) Sibling Relationships, London and New York: Karnac Books

The Wolfman (Pseud) (1973) Recollections of my childhood in Gardiner, M. (Ed.) The Wolfman and Sigmund Freud (pp 17-133), UK: Penguin Books


Please enter your email address below to receive notifications about Contemporary Psychotherapy:

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.


20 Lonsdale Road

In association with The Minster Centre, London.


Opinions expressed in this journal are solely those of the author(s).
Publication in Contemporary Psychotherapy does not imply endorsement of those views.


Copyright belongs to Contemporary Psychotherapy. Material may only be reproduced with written permission from the Editor. Authors may use their own material elsewhere after publication without permission. Production of single copies for personal use is allowed without special permission.

Scroll to Top