How Your Effective Parenting Now Will Impact Estate Planning LaterOct 05, 2023
What does the picture evoke for you?
Helping siblings navigate their relationship with each other is one of the biggest challenges as parents.
Can you imagine these three kids will one day be making decisions about their parent's estate plan and what it means to each of them?
Our sibling relationships are the longest relationships we will have in our lives.
I invite you to stop and think about this for a minute.
Why My Three Boys Led Me to Think About Sibling Relationships and Estate Planning
I am 42 years old, and often find myself thinking about how my kids’ parenting will impact their future estate planning experience. I think this way because I am a therapist and financial planner who works at the complex intersection of love, family, and financial planning. I know the family stories of fractured sibling relationships and painful estate planning experiences—both in anticipation of aging parents and after the parents have passed.
All it takes is a short Google search, and you’ll find plenty of articles about the value of estate planning for young families. But that is a topic for a different blog post. This is not about creating an estate plan; this is about the importance of fostering healthy sibling relationships so that the estate planning process goes smoothly.
Sibling rivalry is replete in history books, religious texts, and modern media, and may continue to play out in your adult life now with your own siblings. Author Fern Chapman writes powerfully about this in her book Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation.
As I watch my three boys grow, develop, and mature, I am also keenly aware of how their mother and I interact with them, setting the stage for how they will interact with each other. Let’s be honest: I am apprehensive about their sibling relationship with each other. This anxiety is not unfounded, but it extends outside of their relationship with each other and into my own family and what I have seen in other family sibling relationships. My anxiety is likely less about my three boys and more about what I have experienced with my brother and seen happen between uncles and aunts in my extended family.
The family lore of why these sibling relationships ended saddens me, and I do not want the same fate for my three boys.
Sibling relationships are where many of us practice, provoke, and play with relationship dynamics. It becomes a large part of our identity and how we define our sense of self in the family. As children, our immature psychological, physiological, and brain development leads us to do (and not do) things in our sibling relationships that, as mature adults, we loathe.
The absence of psychological, physiological, and brain maturity and development make sibling relationships fraught with opportunities to create hurt relationships. The absence of development and maturity is why we depend on the development and maturity of our parent’s psychology, physiology, and brain. The scientific field of interpersonal neurobiology is very clear about this.
At the same time, our parents may not have developed as fully as they needed psychologically, physiologically, and in the structure of their brain to effectively help us navigate our sibling relationships in a way that leads to pro-social behavior and loving connection with appropriate perspective on who we and our siblings are.
The social science research reveals that sibling position is not determinative of how you function in your family; rather, it is more likely your developmental abilities at each age. An eldest child may be assigned as the responsible one, because taking responsibility is a developmental task.
So sure, the oldest will take more responsibility than a younger sibling, and will always seem to be taking relatively more responsibility—but does that mean they are more responsible, or are they simply reaching responsibility developmental milestones earlier? This toxic side effect can lead to the eldest sibling constantly feeling like they have to be the responsible one, and the younger sibling feeling as if they can never be responsible enough.
As I work with clients, I am often more interested in how they understood their role in the family and how it became defined by sibling position than laying claim that because you are the oldest, middle, youngest, boy, girl, etc., you should fit a particular mold.
My three boys are twelve, seven, and five years old, respectively. As I watch them develop and relate to each other, I know I intend them to grow up with mutual fondness, respect, and love. Yet sometimes, it feels as though they would rather do without each other. Perhaps it is more a ratio of time between loving and playing connection and frustration/disdain with each other. I watch how the five years between my oldest and middle son create a developmental gap, while the seven- and five-year-old spend almost all their family time together.
What will this mean for the future of their story? That has yet to be written. As with the nature of all sibling relationships, they are not fully written—but they are unfolding.
As a parent, the more we can understand attachment theory, the more likely we will be able to help foster healthy sibling relationships amongst our children. We must let go of the attitude that “they will just figure it out.”
Anyone in the throes of parenting and raising kids is no stranger to the issues of fairness, sharing, power, and influence amongst different-aged children, often leaving parents at wit’s end to understand their child’s behavior and treatment of their siblings. Mind you, issues of fairness, sharing, power, and influence also show up in our adult intimate relationships (especially related to money).
Taking the time to reflect on your own experiences of being a sibling and your attachment history can provide valuable clues as to why you may now struggle with raising your children and enjoying your siblings. I know it has for me.
Working on your attachment history and style may be the most important thing you can do to improve the quality of sibling relationships between your children, no matter your age. Even if you have adult children, becoming open and reflective about your influence on sibling relationships can help your adult children come to enjoy each other more fully.
Learning about attachment styles and history has helped me fundamentally change my understanding of why my brother and I have turned out to be so different in some ways, and yet so similar in others, and traces back to my parent’s experiences of attachment and bonding.
One of my favorite books on the topic is called It Didn’t Start With You by Mark Wolynn.
How Could You Not Love Your Siblings?
Martha could not understand why Ben would not talk to his brother and sister about their upcoming inheritance. Ben’s family had created considerable wealth in their lifetime, but Ben and his two siblings were at deep odds with each other. According to him, they had never been close.
Martha, on the other hand, would say, “You just call your siblings, that’s what you do,” to which Ben would become defensive and hurt. He could hardly imagine having a close relationship with his siblings.
As we worked together over time, Martha began to soften and hear more of Ben’s story of growing up. She had not considered the amount of emotional pain Ben felt. He grew up in a family where competition and comparison were the norm. There was little to no emotional warmth in his family.
His parents were Jewish immigrants who had escaped Nazi Germany, and part of their survival in the United States was influenced by becoming focused on success. This had the benefits over time of building considerable wealth, yet their legacy was a lack of empathy and attunement to the emotional needs of their children.
I recognize this story as not being unique to Ben’s family or culture. Turning to wealth, status, and success is a familiar story for many people with diverse backgrounds. People can become focused on money, status, and success to meet their needs for security, freedom, and recognition, to the exclusion of emotional connection and intimate relationships, which can provide their own forms of security, freedom, and recognition.
Ben’s attachment style was highly anxious. He never felt accepted by Martha; instead, he felt like he was under attack and being criticized all the time. To some extent, this was true of Martha, as she would sometimes lose her patience with him and become critical.
Ben had some growth to go through in understanding Martha’s attachment history. Her family had immigrated from Ireland to the United States a few generations prior, and has a very clear and spoken mandate around unquestioned loyalty to the family and siblings. Her parents had seen their sibling relationships tear the family apart, so they placed tremendous pressure on she and her five siblings to “get along” and “work it out.”
This family mandate of loyalty led to sibling relationships of obligation and duty that, at times, could be volatile and aggressive. The siblings lacked more effective ways to communicate their different wants, needs, and desires, as well as knowledge of how to repair relationship ruptures. As it turned out, there was also little empathy between them.
Ben and Martha both began to realize that his future inheritance and inability to talk with his siblings about their parent’s estate plan was about the money and quality of their family and sibling relationships. They continued to explore how their sibling relationships were similar and different, and met each other with more curiosity, compassion, and empathy about their experiences of sibling relationships.
To help give them a frame of reference for how families of diverse backgrounds organize themselves, I introduced them to the circumplex model of family functioning. This is a fancy way of saying “how different families interact with each other and what that means for the health of the family.” It is important to remember that while families may be diverse in many ways, there are common patterns and ways of relating to each other that transcend cultural boundaries.
As parents, we have a responsibility to our children to help them with their sibling relationships. They come into this world not knowing how to navigate their relationships, but with many drives for relationships as part of the human experience.
We can, and do, have a lifetime effect on our children's experience of their sibling relationships. Yes, as we all age, that responsibility shifts—but from my perspective, it is never fully in the children's hands. As long as parents are living, they have an impact on their children's relationships with each other. Indeed, in some ways, even after a parent’s death, their legacy continues to have an impact.
For the neuroscience nerds, the effects of childhood and sibling experiences live in the synaptic shadows of the brain.
Let’s take the time to learn, heal, and grow into healthy sibling relationships, as it can have a profoundly positive impact on the process of leaving our own legacy. It may not always be easy—but it will absolutely be worth it.
Wishing You Happy Sibling Relationships,
MBA, MA, MS, CFP®, CFT-I™, LMFT
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