Having Kids Close In Age Doesn't Guarantee Their BFF Status

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Peaople Images / iStock

I don’t think my mom intentionally had my sister and me a mere 16 months apart. But everyone treated it as serendipitous: We would always have a playmate! We would be best friends!

Instead, to us, we always had someone to take from, someone to tease, and someone to hit. I couldn’t stand her — she had long blonde hair that everyone always cooed over. I was more homely but could name the moons of Mars. I felt ugly. She felt stupid. It didn’t help that we had the same teachers at the school where she was two years behind me. They often openly compared us. “Your sister got a perfect score,” a teacher once informed her, in front of the whole class. “There’s no reason you can’t too.” Except there was. She wasn’t me.

And then there were our personalities — both prickly, both quick to take offense. We fought constantly. “Katie is your cross to bear,” my grandmother told me. I was suffering mightily from untreated mental health issues. Maybe Kate was too. I don’t know because she stopped speaking to us around the time my second son was a year old, for a variety of reasons both my fault and hers. We were supposed to be best friends, but the truth is, having kids close together doesn’t guarantee they’ll get along.

We all have dreams and expectations for our kids. Among them is a fervent hope that our children will love each other the way we love them, that they’ll cheer each other on and pick each other up, celebrate each other’s joys and share each other’s pains. Psychology Today says that 3-to-9-year-old sibling pairs have “experienced an extended conflict 2.5 times per 45-minute play session — once every 18 minutes.” That sounds like a lot. But in “healthy sibling relationships,” the good times outweigh the fighting. Unfortunately, all sibling relationships aren’t healthy. According to Time, 3–10% of Americans have totally cut ties with a brother or sister.

As Psychology Today says, sibling estrangement is “sometimes […] brought on by childhood dynamics that have metastasized into toxic resentment.” Basically, even though you had two kids close together, who were supposed to be best friends, like my sister and I, something went wrong. Maybe there was family favoritism. In “Unloved Daughters and Their Siblings” in Psychology Today, the author discusses Gail, whose 22-month-older sister was the “good” daughter while she was the “bad” one. Sis was an athletic A student; Gail was dyslexic, and her mother said, “an embarrassment, both inside and outside of the family.” The sisters exchange only obligatory phone calls on birthdays and holidays.

Or maybe that thing that went wrong was competition itself. My sister and I were extremely competitive and extremely jealous whenever the other received our parents’ attention — who went to what sporting event, who got praise for what accomplishment. I seethed that my father refused to come to my horseback riding competitions because they scared him; my sister seethed that those competitions took up so much time.

Both of us perceived that the other garnered more approval from both our parents and extended families, and it enraged us, turned us against each other. We were just both desperate for some attention that maybe we didn’t get enough of when we were small – there were, after all, two of us, less than two years apart. I don’t think these outcomes are that uncommon.

Other sibling groups at risk include those who never learn to manage normal sibling conflicts. Psychology Today spoke with Katherine Conger, director of the Family Research Group at the University of California, Davis, who says in regard to these siblings, “You have no incentive to try to remain in contact. You just want to stay away from it.”

They say that parents can help children learn to mediate these fights, but that parents aren’t always to blame — personality plays a role too. Some kids can cope with any kind of conflict, while others just wilt. I was a wilter. Maybe my sister was too. Maybe your kids are as well.

Worst of all, Marcia Sirota, a psychotherapist, writes in Huffington Post that “children who share a chaotic, abusive or neglectful home environment may […] develop an ‘every man for himself’ coping strategy.” Basically, they distance themselves from their siblings rather than becoming closer to each other. Kids, Sirota says, can adopt parents’ “hurtful ways of acting” and turn on each other. So the children who are so close in age, who are supposed to be such best friends, turn into bitter enemies as they fight to preserve themselves.

I didn’t mean to have three boys like stair steps, every two years. But so far — with my oldest only 7 — they seem to get along, especially my oldest and youngest. The oldest totes the baby around and caters to his whims. The middle child cheerfully gives up toys for his baby brother. He happily plays Legos with his older brother and intricate imaginary games with his younger. They all play together, in fact, and it seems, at least to my eye, that all is well. I breathe a sigh of relief. For now.

I worry, of course, they’ll end up fractured like my sister and I — my sister who refused to visit my mother the same weekend I did because I would be there. Yes, they fight — I’ve seen my youngest claw at my oldest, and they’ve been known to pull hair. They argue. They refuse to share. But they always come back to one another. In the end, they forgive each other, without our intervention (unless it gets violent) and go on playing. I hope they’ll be each other’s best friends and allies. I hope they’ll love and protect each other. I hope. But I don’t assume that a two-year age gap will make them that way.