Many adults don't get along with their siblings—and sometimes it’s not even clear where the bad blood began. Rivalries and hostilities among adult siblings can often be traced back deep into childhood, obscuring their origins. It's likely that your parents could be a significant contributing factor.
You're likely to have trouble getting along with your adult siblings if…
- Your parents paid more attention to one child than another.
Examples: A father shows more interest in the son who is active in sports than the one who prefers acting. A mother devotes more time to her son who has a serious health problem than to her healthy daughter.
- Your parents implied that one sibling was better than the other. There are few surer ways for parents to sabotage relations between children than to say things like, "'Why can't you be more like your sister?" Even subtler, well-intentioned comments can drive a wedge between siblings.
Examples: "I'm proud of you. It's okay that you're not as successful as your brother." Or, "We should talk about money management," followed 20 minutes later by, "Your sister is saving a lot of money."
- One sibling persistently bullied, taunted or threatened the other, and your parents did nothing to stop it.
Sometimes these troublesome parental behaviors continue during the siblings' adult lives, sometimes they don't. Either way, the seeds of sibling rivalry have been planted.
Once siblings are grown, nothing their parents do is likely to cause a major rift between them—unless this animosity dates back to childhood.
Example: You might be unhappy that your parents visited your sister's home for the holidays this year instead of yours, but this probably won't create significant hostility unless you've always felt that your parents favored your sister.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO
Most parents don't believe that they're to blame for problems between their grown children, but if one or more of the kids hold you responsible, citing perceived favoritism or some other reason, you might be able to help heal the situation with an apology. Say something like, "I know we made some mistakes, and we're sorry for them. It's too late to change the past, but understand that we do love you every bit as much as your sibling."
If the issue is favoritism, you might also point out that any unequal treatment that did exist was your fault, not the sibling's, so there's no reason why it should keep siblings from getting along.
It's worth noting that people who believe they were the victims of parental favoritism as children often see evidence of ongoing parental favoritism during their adult lives. Parents can keep the strained family relations from getting even worse by balancing their visits to their grown kids' homes. . .treating their grandchildren exactly the same (adults who feel they received less parental attention or praise growing up tend to believe that their children now get the short end of the stick from their grandparents)... and never telling a child who feels he doesn't measure up how well his siblings are doing.
WHAT ADULT CHILDREN CAN DO
If you or your sibling thinks, "My brother/sister needs to change before we can get along," your relationship is doomed. There's hope only if you can ask, "What do I need to do to make this relationship work?"
Call your sibling and say you would like your relationship to be closer. Suggest that the two of you get together and try to work through your problems. If you think your parents have poisoned the waters between you, share this idea with your sibling, but don't be shocked if the sibling doesn't agree. Siblings often remember childhood very differently.
Example: Your sibling might think that you were the golden child. While your parents were comparing you unfavorably with your sibling, they might have been doing the same to him/her,
Whatever your sibling has to say, listen without interrupting. Then, before responding, summarize what he said to make sure you understand. Discuss what you can do to improve the relationship before suggesting things your sibling can do.
Helpful: If your relationship with your sibling is so strained that you can't even call him to try to reconcile, start by seeing a family therapist. Let the therapist decide when and how to involve the sibling in the healing process.
If your parents continue to feed your competition, explain to them that they're preventing the family from being as close as it might be. Even if your parents don't agree that they're part of the problem, they might agree to be more careful about their behavior in the future for the good of the family.
Whether or not you're able to change your parents, be careful to treat your own kids as equitably as possible. People who feel that their parents treated one kid better than another often unintentionally repeat this behavior with their own children.