Question: My best friend is a wonderful man who is kind, accomplished and a great husband and father. His younger sister is a total disaster. She has had terrible relationships, is in extreme debt, and at the age of forty is still dependent on her parents for support. How can two people turn out so differently when they have the same parents and grow up in the same loving home?


Answer: There are a huge number of variables that go into the making of an individual. There are, of course, genetic differences but in addition, each sibling in a family gets dropped at birth into an emotional environment that is somewhat different than that of the sibling before him/her.  Let’s look at an extreme example as a way of identifying some of the variables.

John and Sarah get married when they are twenty-six and decide to work hard and play hard for a few years before having children. When their son Mark is born they are doing well and are delighted to be parents. Sarah stays home as planned and enjoys the break from work. John gets a promotion and Sarah’s parents are great babysitters so their life style continues with only a few disruptions.

Four years later Mark is in pre-school, Sarah is back at work, and the couple decides to have a second child.


When Sarah is six months pregnant, John loses his job and Sarah’s mother has a stroke and dies. Sarah’s father becomes dependent on Joan and his health begins to fail. Sarah, an only child, has been very close to her parents and feels a deep loss for which she has little time to grieve. John is going through his own challenges with trying to find a new position. Their savings are dropping and John, having always earned a good salary, is struggling with depression. 


Just before their daughter Martha is born, John and Sarah are forced to sell their home and move into a small house in a different neighbourhood. At this point Sarah is really feeling the stress and John’s depression is deepening. Sarah’s father starts dating a strange woman who is nothing like her mother and Martha is having trouble nursing. Sarah begins to think there is something wrong with Martha.


The doctor says that Martha has lost weight and that Sarah should watch her carefully. Sarah gets more concerned about Martha and Martha gets more irritable. John starts feeling ignored by Sarah, resents her focus on Martha and switches from wine to scotch.

Mark seems to be somewhat under the radar. He helps his mother with the baby, watches TV with his dad and enjoys his grandpa and the new girlfriend. In fact, he spends quite a bit of time with them.

Three years later, John is working and drinking less. Mark is off with his grandfather and new grandma on summer vacation and Sarah is looking for a pre-school for Martha.  Sarah remains concerned about Martha’s appetite and irritability noting that she is a little underweight and wonders if she is ready for pre-school. On her first day at school Martha bites the teacher. Sarah begins to think that Martha may need to be home-schooled!


. . . and so on!


Though the example is extreme, it serves to illustrate that each child is dropped into a different emotional soup.  Every family goes through stressful periods and even the most emotionally stable parents can be thrown into anxiety given the nature and number of stressful events. The anxiety in one family member can easily transfer to another. Given the time of birth and the developmental process, one child may be more susceptible to parental anxiety than another. Martha was born into a more anxious family than was Mark and therefore may be up against more challenges in developing an identity outside of the anxious focus of her mother. I suspect that your friend’s sister was more susceptible to the family anxiety than your friend was. When clients complain that their sibling got more of their mother’s focus than they did, I remind them that it’s not always fortunate to be the object of a parent’s attentive concern.

Margaret Anne Speak, M.A., C.C.C. works with couples, individuals, and families from a Bowen Family Systems perspective at Family Services of the North Shore. Questions? Write This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or call 604-988-5281.