What I Learned from the Other Three: Sibling Dynamics and Group Therapy

            One of four. Last summer, while sitting on the beach with my parents and three siblings, my sister Hannah shared an idea. “Let’s get tattoos,” she suggested, looking to me, my sister Olivia, and my brother Noah. “We’ll get roman numerals in our birth order. Aaron gets one, I’ll get two, Olivia can take three, and Noah’s can have four.” She smiled and looked in his direction. My brother, a twin who still hasn’t gotten over being the second out of the womb, disagreed immediately. “Tattoos are stupid,” he said. He looked down and returned to his book, the first in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Olivia was similarly disinterested. “It would hurt too much,” she admitted.

            More than anything else in my life, I am grateful for my family. I’m grateful for my parents, who remain my closest friends and greatest role models, and for my siblings, who amount to the best crew I could have ever asked for. As siblings, our familial roles are clear and follow the somewhat cliché birth order model. As the oldest, I’m the slightly obsessive achiever of the group. The first one to experience college. The one to “set the bar” for the others (believe me, I don’t take this much credit). Hannah, our beloved middle child, is deeply passionate, driven, and emotional. She’s off to get her doctorate degree in the fall, an incredible achievement that deeply disturbs my schema of bar-setting, oldest child. And then there are the twins, the sensitive, deeply caring once-babies who will be starting the first chapters of their adult lives at Endicott College and the University of Connecticut this fall. Olivia, a destined teacher who spent her toddler years arranging stuffed animals into a classroom on her bedroom floor, and Noah, a coxswain-turned-high school actor who never ceases to surprise me with his empathy and intelligence.

            Roles and beliefs. These descriptions offer only a brief glimpse into how our sibling roles and relationships impact our lives. As the oldest of four, I’ve often felt the responsibility to look out for my own and support my siblings through life stages and challenges that I have already experienced. A natural-born therapist, right? My childhood was characterized by hours of play, from building with legos in the basement to neighborhood games of manhunt at dusk. Today, I understand the value of play, and it was central to my role this year as a school social worker. In running groups with children, my first approaches involve games and activities. But, perhaps most importantly, my upbringing constantly brought me back to one idea: that I was a part of something bigger, more loving, and more important than myself. I was a part of my family.

            This attitude, which can be understood most simply as collectivism, is central to the practice of group therapy. I’m comfortable in groups because I grew up in one. This identity as one-of-many became salient on the beach last summer when Hannah suggested the tattoos. One of four. No superiority, and no central authority as a group leader. Instead, a supportive figure to model group (or family) norms and guide others toward positive outcomes. My sibling relationships have also helped me to understand Caffaro and Conn-Caffaro’s idea of cohesion, which was described as “more contingent on member-to-member interactions” than a “universal wish to be the favorite” (Caffaro & Conn-Caffaro, 2003). As a group therapist, I can use this understand to foster relationships between the individuals who share my circle of chairs. I will carry the belief that cohesion isn’t about impressing me, the leader, but about understanding one another. This may be particularly important for working with children and teenagers.

            My siblings and I didn’t become the tight unit we resemble today through competition or favoritism. Instead, we bonded over our development and mutual support as individuals. We understood our differences, and followed Caffaro and Conn-Caffaro’s (2003) description of deindividuation to capitalize off of them and reduce rivalries The four of us are such different people, and I doubt this happened by pure coincidence. As a therapy group begins to individuate and push other members’ boundaries, it’s vital for their leader to balance the group’s separateness and connectedness. Like a group of siblings, group members need to feel comfortable in roles where they won’t compare themselves to others. Deindividuation suggests that this process is accomplished by embracing each member’s individual strengths and talents. Once again, a best practice for group therapy can be related back to the first group I was ever a part of, my family.

            Countertransference. I’m having trouble pinpointing specific individuals or dynamics that, given my sibling relationships, would pose difficulties to my role as a group leader. And this may be exactly the problem. As the oldest child, I’m used to being the first. The one to get it right not because he was the best or most skilled, but because there was nobody for him to be compared to. As a group therapist, this may affect my ability to manage situations where there is no objective right or wrong. I like to be in control. I like to be the one who knows what to do. In my family, the most salient group I’ve ever been a member of, this has always been one of my roles. In group therapy, a field marked by the unknown, this role will break down.

            As a group therapist, my responsibilities are different. I don’t need to know, and shouldn’t be expected to know what to do; working through the unknown is an essential part of a group’s process and here-and-now experience. It’s how members will grow and relate to one another. Instead, I need to use my empathy and collective spirit, which are rooted in my early family experiences, to provide for my group members. To allow them to explore their identities in relation to other members, and to enable them to follow their own unique courses of development. There’s no room for my insecurities of not knowing because, like with my siblings, my therapy groups will be greater than their individual members. By sitting back, I can enable my clients to learn and run. Members will have the space to share information that has been latent for years, and others will be free to emerge as organic leaders. I’m confident in my future as a group therapist, but not because or my skills or expertise. Instead, I’m affected by the experience of being one of four. I’m confident because of Hannah, Olivia, and Noah.

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References:

Caffaro, J. & Conn-Caffaro, A. (2003). Sibling dynamics and group psychotherapy. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy 53(2), 135-154.

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