If you’re the oldest in your family, maybe your sister and brother thought you were bossy as a kid—and still consider you bossy now that you’re an adult. Or if you were the baby in your family, you may still be treated as such by your siblings.
It’s perfectly understandable that birth order affects our sibling relationships during childhood. Trouble is, those uneasy, unequal sibling relationships tend to persist for the rest of our lives. You might earn a master’s from Stanford, but when you go to your family reunion, your older brother still is going to tell you how to barbecue the chicken.
This isn’t easy to overcome—the way we see our siblings is deeply engrained. Ironically, the best way to get past birth-order disharmony often isn’t to try to set birth-order differences aside, but rather to embrace them.
Older siblings tired of being called bossy might assume the smart strategy is to sit back and let younger siblings take the reins. But many younger siblings are so preconditioned to let firstborns lead that they reflexively cede responsibility—then accuse the older siblings of taking over.
Older siblings instead should use their natural leadership skills to take charge of putting younger siblings in charge. You might ask one of your siblings to plan your family’s next gathering, then add, “Just tell me what you want me to do to help.” Doing this regularly can forge a new sibling dynamic.
Younger siblings struggling to be seen as full-fledged adults should take advantage of their natural interpersonal and diplomacy skills. Rather than come right out and accuse older siblings of unfair treatment—accusations are more likely to lead to arguments than progress—stroke firstborns’ considerable egos by saying how thankful you are for everything they did for you during childhood. Then add, “Sometimes I feel like I’m still not treated like your equal. I’d love to have a relationship where we see each other as peers.” If your older sibling protests that he does treat you as an equal, say you’re probably a bit oversensitive on the subject but that it’s important to you. Calling yourself oversensitive diffuses the tension while still getting your point across. Your older siblings might not always treat you as an equal, but they probably are protective of you and won’t want to cause you pain on a topic of importance to you.