As we grow up and move out, many of us have the goal of self-sufficiency. But when your adult sibling doesn’t seem to have the same ambition, it can be a sore spot—specifically when parents step in to bail them out. You want to be proud of yourself for being financially solvent and happy that your parents are able to help out your brother or sister, but at the same time, it’s easy to get jealous when treatment doesn’t feel the same—even if you don’t need emergency money.
This situation occurs fairly often, said Matt Lundquist, a psychotherapist at Tribeca Therapy in New York. What’s the best way to deal with it and the feelings that spring from it? It might be a little more complicated than you think.
If a family dynamic is making you feel bad, try to sit back and examine your emotions without judging them, said Minnesota-based marriage and family therapist Rebekah Miller.
“The research says that when you name how you’re feeling with acceptance, just that process starts to decrease the stress,” she said. “Then you just let it wave through you—like a wave, it’s going to crest then it’s going to fall back down.”
Our reactions to our own emotions in difficult situations often make things worse.
“What a lot of us do culturally is we freak out when we have emotions, we judge it, and we have a secondary emotion to our primary emotion,” Miller said. “Then we get mad at ourselves, and our stress increases, then we’re more mad at everybody.”
Remind yourself that negative feelings “always (move) through, and (you) will feel better on the other side.”
Though your feelings might seem to be solely linked to what’s happening between your parents and your sibling today, it’s possible the dynamic goes back farther than that, Lundquist said.
“I think that when it comes to adult siblings it’s important to keep in mind that that’s a relationship that developed at a time when each of the partners in the sibling relationship didn’t have an adult brain, and also it developed in an environment where the parent or parents were really running the show and responsible for providing leadership,” he said. “It’s important that we recognize that there’s a long history going back to childhood there.”
Most likely, your feelings have a root that predates your parents helping out your sibling with money or time.
“That awareness can kind of increase opportunities for empathy and to appreciate that… this history is skewing the way you see it,” Lundquist said.
If the situation is making you feel bad, “ask yourself, ‘What do I need or want?'” Miller said.
“Often in these situations, you’re feeling jealous or unhappy or like it’s not fair, (but) you’re not really aware of… what the (underlying) emotion is …
“If you’re seeing your parents give money to your sibling, for instance, who needs it, do you actually need financial support? A lot of times we feel the unhappiness of the situation and we don’t know where to go from there.”
Miller recommended checking in with what she calls “your automatic thoughts,” which she defines as “assuming you know what people think without having sufficient evidence,” like if “a parent is doing this for one sibling and your automatic thought is, ‘They like them more, they prefer them.'”
The reality is “distorted just enough to make you feel more sad or down,” she said.
Challenge the automatic thoughts you might be having with information you know to be true. You can even check in with your parents about your thoughts to help you dismiss them. (More about that below.)
Likely, if your parent or parents seem to be there for your sibling more than they’re there for you, “there is a rationale there and it’s not just a desire to… play favorites or be manipulative,” Lundquist said. “Most commonly the parents in these situations are trying to come up with something that feels fair and equitable.”
Parents often struggle to know what to do for each of their children, he said.
“There are lots of different ways that parents decide, consciously or not, how they want to support their adult children,” Lundquist said. “I think it’s important to appreciate these kinds of things are really hard for parents and having some empathy for the challenges for them” can help you feel a little better about a tough situation.
“We spend most of our lives not really thinking about our parents as people who are fallible and can struggle with things,” he said.
If you want to better understand your parents’ rationale, talk to them about it.
“Find ways that are not threatening to be curious about (it),” Lundquist said, like asking them, “How did you decide to do it this way?”
It’s important to be mindful of how you’re approaching the conversation, he said.
“Somebody on the receiving end of that, there’s a propensity on the part of the other person to be defensive,” Lundquist said. “You have to work really hard to say, ‘I want to talk about this with you, I don’t want to attack you, I don’t want to point a finger at you or blame you. And then you’ve got to back that up, there has to be a really sincere open-mindedness.”
Depending on your relationship with your sibling, you might also want to ask them some questions. But “if your intent is, ‘I want to talk to you because I want to demand that you see how unfair (this) is,’ that’s a posture that’s often not going to go well.”
If you decide to talk with your sibling about how family dynamics are playing out, “frankly, a very common thing is that people are very surprised to hear that their sibling doesn’t see” the situation in the same way, Lundquist said.
Dealing with family stuff on your own can be incredibly difficult, and every situation is different. Working with a mental health professional can help you talk through your feelings and find a solution that’s right for you.
Miller recommended “seeking out someone who’s trained in family therapy” to “(learn) the skills of navigating and managing what happens with (your) family.”
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.