You Can Choose Your Friends but Not Your Relatives We listen to our friends lament about their difficult-to-get along-with relatives. But we never want to admit that our adult children might complain to their friends about their brothers and sisters. Through those years of hands-on parenting, we envision adult children who are siblings and best friends. Reality often rips apart that fantasy.
Last week we shared the story of a California novelist whose two young adult sons are split by social and political ideology. The two boys who shared everything from sports to school now barely speak. They are not alone. A Psychology Today article noted:
one-third of [siblings] describe their relationship as rivalrous or distant. They don’t get along with their sibling or have little in common, spend limited time together, and use words like “competitive,” “humiliating,” and “hurtful” to depict their childhoods…They push each other’s buttons without knowing why or how and recast themselves in childhood roles that never worked in the first place.
Mothering21 sought a better understanding of the role parents play in sibling conflict and, more important, how we can avoid—often unwittingly—setting up the situation for conflict to occur. This week we chatted with Dr. Karen Gail Lewis, a psychotherapist with practices in Cincinnati and Washington D.C., who co-edited “Siblings in Therapy: Life Span and Clinical Issues.” She also organizes weekend retreats for adult siblings who want to mend broken relations.
What’s on your list of the “10 Causes of Sibling Conflict?”
- Parental favoritism is a problem when the special attention goes only to one child.
- Children recreate parents’ conflicts
- Parents recreate their own sibling issues with their children
- One parent is “switchboard operator” for the siblings
- Parents assign behavioral roles for each child
- Dysfunctional parents cause siblings to turn anger onto each other
- Dysfunctional parents cause sibling to isolate themselves.
- Younger sibling feels abandoned as older moves away
- Cultural preference in looks, abilities, personality
- Mental illness and neurological condition
Something for everyone! Let’s look at the “switchboard operator.”
The hub of a family’s communication is usually the mother because she knows what’s happening with each child. This is not necessarily bad if siblings don’t mind reminders for birthdays and other little notes and asides. But that role can become intrusive.
Apparently there are many ways for moms to be intrusive.
It’s pure intrusion if she’s trying to tell one sibling how to feel about another or if she’s interfering with their own choice of what to share and how to be with each other. It’s also intrusive if she steps into fights between siblings. What happens then is that the children turn to her and don’t learn how to resolve things themselves. That only increases antagonism between them. Remember “Mom he hit me!” and how sometimes it was better if you just let them work it out themselves? That also applies to adult children.
Why is it so hard for some moms to step away the switchboard?
Women typically feel a sense of responsibility for relationships and are ready to jump in to fix anything that’s problematic. But if mom’s in the middle then the siblings can’t learn how to manage being angry with each other and then making-up. Instead the fighting escalates and they turn to her to resolve the issue because she has trained them to do that by her behavior.
Number three on your list concerns parents is when parents model–or remodel–their own good or bad sibling realtionships with their children.
The sibling relationship is so powerful it flows through the generations. Parents’ expectations for their children are based on their own history. If they had a good relationship, they expect to recreate that; if they had a conflictual one, they fear that will happen to their children.
And that continues over the decades?
Often when children leave home get along much better with their siblings until they come back for a family event like Thanksgiving. Then they slip back into roles the parents had ascribed for them–even if the role no longer fits.
With family gatherings at the holidays coming up, what can parents do to avoid those conflicts?
Most moms can write the script for the family event ahead of time, and know where it’s going to go off track. It’s like watching scenes from a bad movie. A mom needs to think ahead of time, “Here’s what I am not going to do.” Take time to think it through and rewrite the script and your role. Don’t get drawn into old fights. Try not to question or criticize. Don’t ask your son for why he’s not wearing a shirt and tie or your daughter why she moved so far away. Whatever the cause conflict: Don’t do it!