Think you know all about sibling rivalry, because you lived through it, you’re still in the middle of it, or you see it at every family gathering? Take this quick test to see if your experience matches the latest research.
True or False:
1. The amount of conflict between brothers and sisters is not necessarily related to their level of affection for each other.
2. Conflict between siblings can actually help them practice conflict-resolution skills.
3. Arguments are often a way to establish different identities for brothers and sisters, which is why they are most intense between siblings who work together, are of the same sex, or are close in age.
4. Sibling rivalry can be a way to release frustration, or to displace anger toward a parent, since siblings would never dare talk to parents the way they talk to each other.
5. Open adult sibling rivalry can be a way to test parents’ favoritism, by seeing which side they take.
6. Adult sibling rivalry is usually worse when parents are around and paying attention.
7. When parents step in to try to stop adult sibling rivalry, the battling sibs often team up against their parents.
If you answered True to all seven questions, you’re probably a lifelong expert in the field of sibling rivalry. If you answered False more than half the time … maybe you’re an only child who has an only child.
Starting young, ending … Never?
Most sibling rivalry starts when we’re children, competing for parents’ attention, having difficulty sharing, or clashing over incompatible personalities, differences in abilities or achievements, or contrasts in social or sexual attractiveness. In fact, in a survey of more than 1,000 children administered for my book KidStress (Penguin, 2000) children reported being more stressed and annoyed by their siblings’ behavior than they were about dictatorial parents or disloyal and hurtful friends.
And the problem doesn’t magically disappear when we grow up. According to Psychology Today, one in three adults report still feeling sibling rivalry — and the real number is probably higher, since so many of us do not like to admit to family problems, even on anonymous surveys.
If you’re still navigating a sibling rivalry, remember this: When you’re with your extended family, you fill other roles beyond brother or sister. You’re a son or daughter, mother or father, grandparent, uncle, aunt, or in-law. You owe it to your family to put differences aside and promote fun times together.
Also: Read The 6 Things You Should Never Say
Don’t spoil everyone’s day
Don’t confront a sibling at a holiday party, birthday, or anniversary. If you have something to say, make a plan to meet together, alone, at another place and time. Or, even better, say it in a letter. When you write about what you’re feeling, you can review it before you mail or e-mail it, and decide to tone it down, or not even send it at all. Once your angry words are tossed out in a face-to-face confrontation, they can’t be erased or deleted. You’re stuck with them, and whatever escalation or retaliation they may trigger. A minute of anger can lead to a lifetime of grief. Another advantage of putting feelings in a letter is that your sibling can read and reread it in private, take the time to let your concerns sink in, and (hopefully) respond logically instead of defensively.
Say the right thing
When you’re writing or talking to a sibling about a conflict, focus on resolution, not blame. Go beyond describing your anger or hurt and discuss how to fix the problem too. If you think there’s even a chance that you’ve hurt or offended your sibling, say, “I’m sorry.” Even if you’re avoiding direct blame by saying, “I’m sorry that you feel bad” or “I’m sorry that I did something to upset you,” just including the words “I’m sorry” is crucial. Researchers have found again and again that we not only want to hear those words, but we seem to be programmed to respond positively to them! Just think how quickly many of us are ready to give politicians or celebrities a second chance when they apologize for things they’ve done or said. And then think about how hard it is for public figures to rehabilitate their images if they never say, “I’m sorry.”
Also: Read The 5 Mistakes Even Good Grandparents Make
Find common ground
If you’re not getting along with a sibling, but will be forced to spend time together at some family event, take along something you can both respond to positively, like old family photos, or stories you can tell kids and grandkids about great times growing up. Or just keep the conversation focused on the next generation, and how wonderful your various grandkids, nieces, and nephews are.
Also: Read The 7 Grandparenting Laws You Can’t Break
Stay the course
Here’s the good news: Eventually, most siblings decide that their bonds are stronger than their conflicts. One reason, of course, is that competition for parental approval becomes a nonissue as parents age or pass away. Also, as siblings become the older generation themselves, they’re happy to have someone with whom they can share memories, finances, problems, and celebrations. In fact, that same Psychology Today survey found that more than 80 percent of siblings over the age of 60 say they’ve forgiven each other and no longer feel like rivals. Only 4 percent stay angry forever. So hang in there.
Find more advice for keeping a positive outlook: