Siblings Who Grow Up Together Can Have Vastly Different Childhoods. Here's Why

Just because you grew up in the same home doesn't mean you had the same experience or impression of your parents. Experts break down how and why this happens.
Each sibling is born into a different set of circumstances.
Thomas Barwick via Getty Images
Each sibling is born into a different set of circumstances.

Hearing your siblings describe their childhood can sometimes be a little jarring. You may even get the sense that you didn’t grow up on the same planet, much less in the same house.

“Despite having shared early experiences, it’s not uncommon for siblings to have experienced their childhood in a very different way,” said Genevieve von Lob, a clinical psychologist and author of “Happy Parent, Happy Child.”

It turns out this is normal ― and for a good reason. Below, experts break down this phenomenon.

Siblings are usually born into different circumstances.

The family circumstances a child is born into often differ from when their younger sibling arrives. For example, economic changes may make siblings feel like their childhoods weren’t the same.

“Significant changes in family financial status can impact differences in extracurricular activities, schooling, vacations, and other material aspects of childhood between siblings,” said Keneisha Sinclair-McBride, a clinical psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts. “These things are very tangible and can feel ‘unfair,’ even though they are often just a product of changes in circumstances.”

Emotional shifts in parents can play a significant role as well. For example, siblings are often born at different phases in their parents’ lives, so they might be treated differently.

“Parents may show up very differently for each of their children depending on where they are in their own lives, including their own mental health and stress levels, their significant partnership, support network, work and financial commitments, and whether they have more than one child,” von Lob said.

She noted that parenting might feel overwhelming to someone highly sensitive, as their nervous systems become overstimulated more quickly.

“If they have more than one child, other stressors in their lives, or if they haven’t had enough sleep and time alone to recharge their batteries, then they can become more drained, anxious, irritated and frazzled,” von Lob said. “So differences in the way a child is parented can also be influenced by the temperament of the parent and where the parent is emotionally in their lives.”

Thus, birth order can impact your perception of your parents.

“Siblings born years apart are quite literally born from parents who themselves are years apart from who they were during the earlier or later pregnancy,” noted Dr. Kevin Simon, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Boston Children’s Hospital and chief behavioral health officer for the city of Boston.

As parents get more experience raising children, they inevitably evolve in their caregiving style.

“Some parents are more unsure and cautious with their first child and more sure of themselves with subsequent siblings,” Sinclair-McBride said. “This can make older and younger siblings’ experiences different.”

Parents may recognize that certain approaches they took with their first child weren’t ideal and adjust accordingly.

“Maybe the older sibling was treated more harshly, but the parents readjusted their parenting style and were more compassionate with their parenting moving forward with a younger sibling,” said parenting educator Laura Linn Knight. “An older sibling also may have experienced or witnessed more than the younger sibling, such as a divorce, so this can affect the way they see themselves in the family dynamic.”

Birth order can also shape the way a child perceives and interacts with their parents.

“For example, the oldest child is often expected to take on more responsibilities and look after younger siblings, so may have different expectations placed on them,” von Lob said. “In this way, they may have a very different experience of their childhood. Younger siblings may have a parent who feels more experienced and therefore may be more relaxed but may have less time to give that child than the firstborn.”

How parents respond to their kids’ differing personalities also plays a role.

“All siblings are unique individuals ― including twins,” Sinclair-McBride said. “Having their own personality styles, traits, and characteristics may cause siblings to interpret or experience the same situations or parenting differently. In turn, these differences may impact the way they are parented, connect to their parents and experience their family.”

One child may share certain interests and personality traits with one or both parents, while another sibling has more of their own distinct personality and interests. So if one kid is passionate about that same sport or team their parent loves, they may forge a specific bond around that activity.

Every child is unique, so their parents' relationships with them will be unique as well.
FG Trade via Getty Images
Every child is unique, so their parents' relationships with them will be unique as well.

“Sometimes, a child’s personality traits can bring out different sides of their parents, and parents may relate to a child’s personality more than another child, which can be seen as favoritism,” Knight said. “Because of personality traits of the child and parent, you find that parents respond differently to each child or enjoy spending more time with a child that is easier for them to communicate with and enjoy the company of. When we look at differences in personality, temperament, needs and interests of parents and children, it is easy to see that siblings will have their own unique experience.”

Even parents with the best intentions don’t respond to each child similarly. Factors like personality, past experiences and even societal expectations around gender roles can color each interaction. While some kids are more extroverted and crave attention, others can be more reserved and less open about what they want.

“The gender, personality, needs, mannerisms and behavior of each particular child can trigger parents in different ways, which can result in a sibling who is treated very differently to the other children,” von Lob said.

She noted that a parent may find their strong-willed, highly sensitive child more demanding and difficult to manage than their laidback, easy-tempered child ― which can lead to very different interactions over those childhood years.

Siblings’ reactions to and reflections on the same experience can differ.

“Depending on the personality, temperament, and characteristics we’re born with, our parents will respond to those differences,” said clinical psychologist and author Jenny Yip. “Siblings are different individuals who will also respond to their parents differently.”

She noted that no two individuals think the same way about a situation. Thus, siblings can have different emotional responses to similar experiences. This is true for how they feel during childhood and as adults looking back.

“It’s just like eyewitness accounts,” Yip said. “You have 10 people who all saw the same thing, but depending on belief system, attitude, and values, they’re going to interpret the same incident differently. Another example is like watching a movie. Everyone in the room watches the same movie, but what each person takes from it and relates to it is going to be different depending on your values, attitudes, and belief system. It’s the same with siblings who share the same parents.”

Siblings can disagree about shared experiences. For example, one may have been more affected by a particularly positive or traumatic event that they both lived through. Or they may simply have a different impression of whether something was positive or negative at all.

“One sibling may have loved the village they grew up in, but the other sibling found it stifling,” von Lob said. “One sibling may have loved the camping holidays in the countryside, but the other sibling found it boring and remembers wanting to go abroad.”

This is not necessarily a bad thing.

“It is normal and expected for siblings to have different experiences with their parents,” Simon said. “This is neither good nor bad in and of itself. It is a natural result of each sibling’s unique personality, experiences, and perspective.”

Indeed, the fact that you and your siblings grew up in the same home but had very different perceptions of your childhoods does not necessarily indicate a problem.

“Children do not have to be treated exactly the same at all times to be treated equitably,” Sinclair-McBride said. “Because each individual is unique, they have unique needs and experiences. If those needs were met with love and support, slight differences in treatment do not have to be a cause for alarm for parents or siblings.”

Still, the reality is that you and your siblings have different impressions of your childhood, and your parents may feel uncomfortable. That’s where talking about it can help.

“Siblings need to recognize and respect each other’s differences in how they perceive and relate to their parents,” Simon said. “Siblings can learn to appreciate and value each other’s perspectives, even if they disagree.”

Although these differences are natural and understandable, processing them is still helpful. In addition, there might be some negative feelings that warrant addressing.

“If one or more siblings feel that there was unfair and unequal treatment in their childhoods, working through this together can be very beneficial to their relationships,” Sinclair-McBride said. “Giving one’s siblings grace to explain their experiences without judgment and defensiveness can help with perspective-taking and compassion. Trying to change other people’s perceptions of their experiences is a futile exercise. Working through one’s own experiences can be healing.”

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