In this week's 'Teen Talk' column, a young adult explains how his relationship with his older sister changed as they got older, and what parents can do to foster healthy long-term friendships between their kids.

By Brandt Matthews
April 02, 2020
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Illustration by Emma Darvick

As siblings age, they're bound to go through cycles of friendship and rivalry. But regardless of whether they're inseparable companions or in a phase of constant fighting, major changes to sibling dynamics are felt as they grow up. I can still remember returning home from two weeks away at summer camp after the fifth grade to find my older sister acting remarkably more friendly toward me. Three years my senior, she seemed constantly annoyed with my high energy antics before I had left. Only in my absence did she come around to me. When I returned home, she made an active effort to spend time with me the rest of that summer. I was confused and unsure how to react—nothing had changed for me and now suddenly my sister was being so nice. Little did I know, this would foreshadow our dynamic for years to come as we both eventually left the family home.

It's important to understand how your children's relationship with each other has evolved over time, especially if they moved out for college and are now returning home. Here's what you can expect to see happen as your children grow up.

Siblings Are Annoying When We're Young

When siblings grow up in close quarters, it's easy for them to take their relationship for granted. When you're young, you want independence—your own friends, your own hobbies, and your own time with your parents. Sometimes it feels that siblings get in the way of that. Plus, in many instances, even two people who enjoy spending time with one another may not necessarily have things to talk about every day. With such a small age gap between me and my sister, it felt like we were locked in a constant battle for our parents’ attention growing up. This manifested in all the ways you would expect—from arguing over who would sit in which seat in the car to tears over whose art class project would be framed. But it also pushed us to explore new interests. My sister was an avid swimmer from an early age, leading me to learn as many poolside tricks as I could in an attempt to steal some of the spotlight.

As the younger sibling, I was particularly conscious of walking in my sister’s footsteps. If I picked up the same activities as her, I was determined to outdo her or abandon it for something entirely different. When my parents put both of us through the same youth soccer league, the moment I discovered I didn’t have the same natural talent for the sport as my sister I became focused solely on when the next water break would be. This led me to experiment with other sports and eventually develop a love for baseball. While rivalry with my sister growing up made me feel like we were at odds, in retrospect it helped us to develop hobbies independently. 

Age Gaps Feel Smaller When You're Older

While our activities and hobbies felt separate growing up, my sister and I began to bond over our common interests in adolescence. During our shared year at boarding school, my first and her last, the academic focus and increased social blending across age groups made our lives feel more similar than ever before. When I made friends my sister’s age, I began to consider her in a new light. We shared music with one another and went to each other’s sporting events. I would ask her for advice about classes and friends, creating the foundation for our long-term friendship. Sometimes the age gap between siblings can feel far larger than it is simply because it’s been emphasized so many times throughout childhood. As age becomes less of a social factor in adolescence, siblings may discover new bonds over similarities they’d shared for years.

After my sister left for college, we stayed connected through the occasional text conversation about bands we followed and classes I was taking. When it came time for me to apply for college myself, she was quick to offer help and became an incredible resource for me as I navigated essays and applications. Because we already had made a habit of talking remotely, it was easy to begin connecting on a more frequent basis as deadlines approached. Not only this, her advice was more personalized than any college counselor could have been with helping me navigate our parents’ expectations. Mutual interests and advice with the college application process brought us back together, building a foundation that's led to us talking more than ever despite living in different time zones.

Distance Can Make Siblings Closer

When one sibling goes away for a while, like off to college, a younger sibling may feel an increased distance if their brother or sister doesn't message them regularly. They may even feel forgotten as their sibling starts an exciting new life elsewhere.

For siblings who are not as close, a bit of distance may be exactly what's necessary to strengthen their bond in the long run. Before my sister began her freshman year of boarding school, we would fight constantly. Throughout her first few years away, we talked very little—maybe a few texts a month. But because of this period, we were able to develop a friendship more naturally as the years passed. 

Facilitating remote conversations can come in a few forms for parents. Giving your teen updates on their younger siblings or vice versa can help them to independently reach out to one another by providing a starting topic of conversation. Creating and cultivating a family group text is also a great way to keep everyone in the same network as kids begin to leave the house. 

Sibling Reunions Aren't Always Easy

Along with navigating long-distance communication, reuniting under the same roof may also prove initially challenging for siblings. Your teen will likely be adjusted to a different level of independence at college, while your younger children may have become accustomed to more attention or a differing level of responsibility around the house. Finding balance and establishing a new home dynamic is important to show your kids that despite the time your teen has spent out of the house, the family unit is unchanged. When my sister would come back home, my parents helped to ease this process by reestablishing her responsibilities and implementing clear rules regarding any shared privileges, such as the family car.

Every summer when my sister was home from college, my parents had my sister and I compare our work schedules and determine when each of us would walk the dog and how we would carpool on weekdays. Because this organization took place all in one sitting, I felt less annoyed about having to share the car again because I knew she would help with taking care of the dog. Likewise, these shared responsibilities gave us further opportunities to develop our friendship, talking in the car as we drove one another to work and splitting the cost of gas.

The Bottom Line

By allowing your children's bond to develop at their own pace and implementing structures that foster a healthy connection, parents can guide their kids to a successful and mutually beneficial friendship.

Brandt Matthews is a 22-year-old from Rye, New York. He is a senior at Johns Hopkins University majoring in writing and film, with a particular interest in the intersection of storytelling and education. He's excited to continue exploring the ways in which media can simultaneously entertain and inform.

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