“All my kids ever do is fight!” This is a common statement made by parents with multiple children. But when a mom makes this statement about her adult children, it can be a bit more complicated of an issue.
Sibling rivalry can be similar among the young and not-so-young, but often the most challenging aspect of the strained relationship between adult siblings is working through the habits and memories that have been formed over the years.
Most of the time, kids who don’t get along eventually grow out of their frustration with each other. Maturity has a way of helping us recognize what matters most and what we should simply let slide. And with adulthood comes a more profound understanding of others’ intentions while allowing for distinctions in behavior unique to each individual. Often, brothers and sisters who fight about everything from sharing toys to doing chores grow to be the best of friends once they’ve passed through childhood.
Some experts believe that the more children are permitted to battle it out within the comforts of home, the better their interaction will be as adults since they learn the skills needed to resolve conflicts in a familiar setting. But this is not always the case; sadly, kids who fight during childhood often continue their competition as adults. The themes and topics may change, but the emotions are no less significant.
Developmental psychologists suggest siblings often design their own unique verbal and nonverbal language among themselves that essentially identifies their exclusive relationship. Typically, a set of negative behaviors ensue, and although those may not have been discussed, they are subconsciously agreed upon by both.
Dr. Peter Goldenthal, a clinical and family psychologist notes that there are numerous myths about the conflicts between siblings. In his book, “Why Can’t We Get Along?: Healing Adult Sibling Relationships” (John Wiley & Sons), he offers the following observations:
Myth #1: “If I could really understand why my sibling behaves as she does, I’d know how to respond and we’d have a better relationship.”
Goldenthal says it’s unrealistic to expect you will ever fully understand a sibling. But you can still have a good relationship. If a sibling’s behavior is truly affecting you in a negative way, let her know gently — without attacking her character.
Myth #2: “The only way I can stop being disappointed or upset about my sibling relationship is for my sibling to make some behavior changes.”
But Goldenthal says that just like with all relationships, you can’t change another person. The only change you have power over is your own. So if you want to change a sibling relationship, look at what you can change about yourself that might help.
Myth #3: “My siblings and I should be able to put our childhood differences behind us and just move on.”
Goldenthal says during childhood, siblings get use to relating in ways that become habitual. When an adult sibling who seems to have otherwise grown up reverts to old sibling behavior, it might seem out of character. But childhood habits are strong. Lapsing into them is often automatic.
There are those of the school of thought that you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your siblings. Many opt to cut off relationships with troublesome siblings entirely. But those who wish to put effort into resolving recurring conflicts, start with the following resolution techniques:
- Make a conscious effort to break free of old patterns.
- Don’t let resentments brew. Clear up misunderstandings by talking them through as quickly as possible.
- Be a good listener. Be mindful of both verbal and nonverbal cues.
- Don’t hold a grudge, as justified as you think you may be.
- Be ready to say, “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you” when needed.
- Avoid sarcasm; it does nothing more than hurt another’s feelings.
- Don’t embellish — stick to the facts.
- Avoid interpreting behavior. You can never be sure what another’s intentions are, so don’t try to tell her what her behavior means.
- Let your sibling know if you feel uncomfortable talking about something.
- Ask questions if you need further clarification.
- Don’t assign blame. It’s always destructive to relationships.
- In the future, think before you act or speak.
- Do your part to stay in touch!
No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to improve a relationship with a sibling with whom you’ve had issue. Working to improve your relationship with a brother or sister can produce healing and renewed happiness. Your siblings are not children anymore, so learn to see them as adults and try to release the image you have of them as “those rotten kids who always caused you trouble.”
To read more about adult sibling rivalry, check out:
Goldenthal, P. (2002). “Why can’t we get along?: Healing adult sibling relationships.” New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Hapworth, W., Hapworth, N. & Heilman, J. R. (1993). “Mom loved you best: Sibling rivalry lasts a lifetime.” New York: Penguin.
McDermott, P. (1992). “Sisters and brothers: Resolving your adult sibling relationships.” Los Angeles: Lowell House.