It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
By Samantha Zabell
If that famous quote by Charles Dickens describes the sibling relationships in your home, you’re not alone. And if it at times the seemingly endless bickering makes you completely nuts, well, you’re really not alone.
Chalk it all up to sibling rivalry. “Sibling relationships are potentially the longest and deepest relationships our children will have,” says Dr. Pamela Varady, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and parent educator in Santa Monica, California. “There will always be some competition because we are biologically wired for our own survival.”
For siblings close in age, the proximity to each other at home and school can exacerbate the situation, particularly as they enter adolescence. They’re fighting for finite resources: attention, social status and privilege. If they feel the balance is unfair, they’ll get angry. It’s actually not all that dissimilar from when they used to argue over who got more sprinkles on their sundae.
“People don’t grow up in stages, we grow up circularly,” says Dr. Peter Haiman, Ph.D., who specializes in child and adolescent rearing. In other words, the behavior you saw in your toddler—that’s my toy—resurfaces in adolescence. But it’s more charged this time around because of hormones and teenagers’ quest for independence. They want to separate from the family, but they also want the family to need them.
So, what to do to smooth the sibling relationships during adolescence? There are some tried-and-true approaches to calm the tension.
Take Lori, the oldest of three sisters. She bumped heads a lot with her middle sister, Lucine. They’re just two years apart and “super opposite,” which often resulted in frequent squabbles.
“Build in some regular one-on-one time with each of your offspring so that they don’t have to compete for it.”
“There was a competitiveness socially for us,” says Lori, now a junior at Northwestern University. “I had a group of friends, but I wasn’t a party animal. Because my sister was more social, she felt she was better than me.”
At Lori’s house, a “no fighting after 5’o’clock” rule helped. Experts also suggest reminding teenagers, especially the older ones, of their siblings’ admiration. Also, avoid comparisons between your children, and build in some regular one-on-one time with each of your offspring so that they don’t have to compete for it.
“Focus on what is unique about each child,” Varady says. She suggests that you look for seemingly small but important characteristics that set each apart from the others. Teens are striving to individuate and develop hobbies, styles, and opinions of their own. Pointing out their characteristics shows that you’re paying attention and can waylay the bickering that is often a cry for attention.
“The head-butting will often fade naturally throughout the teenage years.”
Your support is important in cultivating positive sibling relationships, but also know that it just takes time. The head-butting will often fade naturally throughout the teenage years—and, often, children who fought like cats and dogs go on to develop an unbreakable bond as adults. Lori’s and Lucine’s shared love for soccer helped the two foster what today is a strong and supportive relationship. In a legitimately competitive environment, the two helped each other at practice to develop weak areas and become better players. But the relationship took a major turn when Lori headed off to college.
“Once I went to college, we evolved into friends,” Lori says. “Through being apart, we’ve grown to have more respect for each other, and that has allowed us to be better sisters.”
Samantha Zabell is a writer in New York City.