Health

How Having Much Older Siblings Shapes You

"How many siblings do you have?"

This is a straight-forward question, but I've never had an easy time answering it. The product of a blended family, I have four half-siblings who are all seven to 12 years older than me, so my experience is likely different than someone who grew up with full siblings who were close in age.

siblings being photographed together

Because of the age gap, my siblings and I didn't really grow up in the same house, and I spent a lot of time by myself. With nobody to play with at home, I developed a strong sense of social independence that raised some eyebrows among adults at day care, where I'd read books or create stories in my head on the playground while the other kids interacted as a unit. My preference for being alone led the day care workers to think I was an only child, but I could never fully call myself that because it wasn't the truth. My situation — the youngest child with much older half-siblings — might be more common than you'd think. A 2012 study titled "Sibling Relationships in Blended Families" concluded that adolescents with half-siblings were an average of 6.2 years apart, compared to 3.2 years apart for adolescents with step-siblings and 2.7 years apart for adolescents with full siblings.

As the youngest by so many years, I've often wondered if people with similar sibling age gaps are more like only children or youngest siblings.

Frank J. Sulloway, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley who has written a book on birth order, told ATTN: it's unclear how having significantly older siblings — that is, six or more years apart — impacts personality. But if you have a large enough gap between yourself and your siblings, you're probably more like an only child than the youngest, Sulloway explained:

"The answer to that question is sort of intuitively obvious in the sense that the larger the age gap, the more the younger child is like an only child. If you're an only child, you grow up without birth order effects, so if you make the gap big enough, it's really as if you're an only child."

However, while the research is inconclusive, people with much older siblings say their experience certainly feels different.

Annelisa Zamora, an 18-year-old Hemet, California resident who has a brother seven years her senior, told ATTN: she feels more like an only child than someone with siblings at times:

"Since I'm a freshman in college, I still spend a majority of time at home, so a lot of the time it does feel like I'm an only child. I can't watch 'Game of Thrones' with my parents or show them funny memes because they mostly don't get it or just don't think it's funny. Sometimes I think about how weird it is that I'm at home while my brother is busy being a cool guy, living it up in LA."

Los Angeles resident Katie Fernau, 29, had a similar experience as the youngest by more than six years:

"As the youngest by over six years, I idolized my sister which annoyed the shit out of her. I spent a lot of time by myself or on the sidelines, leaving me feeling unimportant. As I became older, I didn't have the same sideline support as everyone grew busier and spread apart."

The taboo surrounding giant sibling age gaps.

As Fernau told ATTN:, some people think the youngest siblings were "mistakes," an assumption that can carry some inherent awkwardness when explaining one's family dynamic. Some people may also assume that closer in age siblings have a stronger, peer-like bond than those with large gaps, Fernau noted: "I think there's a common expectation for siblings who are closer in age to be close to one another, like friends, and the expectation for siblings with large age gaps to have more of a parental or mentor-type relationship," Fernau said. "In my case, that just so happens to be true. Also, others always assume that one of us was an accident — and as the youngest, that's usually me."

Justin Dulak, 26, of Milford, Massachusetts, has a half-sister 10 years older than him. He told ATTN: he sensed judgment about his situation when he was a young child:

"The age gap definitely turned some heads during my childhood, never more so than when I became an uncle at 13 years old. Conversely, no one paid any attention to the times when my younger sister and I shared a school or an extracurricular activity. For the most part, though, most of the stigma came from other children my own age. The adults in my life, be it my parents, teachers, or coaches, never made me feel as though it was odd to have such an older sibling."

Though one person's experience with having significantly older siblings might not be the same as another person's experience, Sulloway said it's possible that the youngest siblings may feel lonelier than only children:

"It's possible that if you're a later born with a large gap and you do have a sibling around but you never interact with that sibling much, that you feel lonelier than if you were an only child and never know what it might be like to have a sibling. But who knows? With so many of those things where you can make up an explanation from the armchair, [it] may or may not apply in any individual case," Sulloway said. kid-with-shorter-younger-brotherHaving siblings with significant age gaps doesn't lend itself to "typical" sibling interactions, like entertaining each other and eating meals together every day. This could, perhaps, reflect the findings in a 1992 study in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, which suggested that adults have greater contact with full siblings than half or step-siblings, and that adults tend to live farther away from half-siblings and step-siblings than full siblings.

John Wiskowski, 37, of Royersford, Pennsylvania, who is 14 years younger than his sister, told ATTN: he grew up envying the close sibling relationship of television's "90210" twins Brandon and Brenda.

"I always wanted a twin sister like Brandon and Brenda on 90210! Or at least have had the opportunity to go to school together and have her to watch over me, guide me, take me home after school. The most vivid memories I have are falling asleep at night to her blasting 80s music while she was getting ready to go out with her friends. I wish we could have gone out together, or been close enough that she could tell me where she was going and what she was up to. We only spent time together when my parents went away and she had to babysit me, but usually her friends were around as well."

Some people, however, wouldn't want to have it any other way.

Zamora told ATTN: she appreciates having a much older brother because he's like an "inside man" who teaches her a lot:

"Him being older by so many years makes me feel older, in a way," she said. "Because we are so close I feel like his maturity rubs off on me, which is pretty cool. If we were closer in age, our relationship would be much different from how it is now and, truthfully, I don't know if we'd be as close as we are now."

North Carolina resident Stephanie Villagra, 27, told ATTN: she notices the judgmental reactions around the huge sibling age gap, but that having much older siblings helped her as a child of immigrants. Villagra can also better relate to her older siblings now that she is an adult, so she no longer feels like an only child as she once did.

"People have expressed to me how advantageous it is to have all their kids back to back and 'get it over with' and how practical it is to have a built-in friend group of sorts," Villagra said. "However, in my particular experience, it worked out really well for me to have older siblings. My parents were a lot less strict with me than they were with my brother and two sisters. Also, as a daughter of immigrants who spoke very little English, it was nice to have an extra set of pseudo-parents to help with things like visiting colleges or love advice without having to awkwardly talk to my parents about it."

Though there have been times in my own life in which I've wished I could have been born ten years earlier, I know that families come in many shapes, sizes, and forms. Just because I'm much younger than my siblings doesn't mean we can't have a relationship, and one awesome benefit I've experienced as a much younger sibling is becoming an aunt early in life. My older siblings were like cool uncles and aunts to me growing up, and now I can return the favor as an actual aunt to their children.