If you have siblings, you know that fighting, bickering and finger pointing as kids is part of having a brother or sister. In fact, sibling relationships in childhood are a template for us to be able to form healthy social skills and conflict resolution strategies that we use in relationships throughout our lives.
What happens though when this conflict resolution “practice” goes awry? Unresolved conflicts with siblings in adulthood can lead to estrangements, high levels of stress and family pain.
What can cause difficulties between adult siblings?
Overt hostility. As children, we may hit, call each other names or solve problems through aggression. If we do not properly grow out of childlike patterns of conflict resolution, we may continue to use aggression or hostility to address problems with our siblings in adulthood.
Keeping score. Another pattern that can negatively impact sibling (or any) relationship is when a person keeps track of what another has done or hasn’t done for them, leading to resentment.
Family dynamics. Family dynamics can play into adult sibling conflict. For example, if one sibling feels that his brother or sister was the parents’ “favorite,” he may harbor resentment and anger that comes out in interactions with the perceived favorite sibling.
Competition. We often have a healthy competition with siblings which manifests through games and play. If this competition continues into adulthood, we might start unhealthy comparisons of salaries or careers.
Tips for improving relationships with your adult siblings:
Identify the patterns. Consider your childhood relationship and reflect on how patterns more appropriate to childhood may not have evolved to suit your adult relationship.
What’s your role? We can’t always control what others do, but we can control our own responses. Do you have instant reactions to your sibling’s behavior? Awareness of your own responses can contribute to improvement in your relationship.
Change your expectations. We may hold ideals about how our relationships with siblings should be and continue to be disappointed if the relationship doesn’t live up to these ideals. Also, if we expect conflict, we may be unnecessarily defensive and confrontational.
Ask questions. Asking your sibling questions about how she feels about your relationship may help you to better understand where she is coming from and shows your sibling that you care.
Family dynamics can change. Family dynamics are formed over many years, so it can often feel like there’s nothing we can do to change a relationship with a sibling, but change can start with one person! Try something different to see if it improves your relationship—give a compliment, a hug or say something positive at a time when you might not have otherwise done so.