When Your Grown Children Don't Get Along

Rivalry Persists Among Many Adult Siblings


Siblings fussing over possessions? To be expected. Brothers and sisters acting jealous of each other? Understandable. Grown children exhibiting this kind of behavior? Not okay!

Parents expect their children to tussle over toys and exhibit some degree of sibling rivalry. But when parents become grandparents, they expect adult siblings to get along. All too often, it doesn't happen.

Roots of Sibling Rivalry

Studies have shown that around one-third of adults have conflict with their siblings, or simply don't feel close to them, according to research cited in Psychology Today.

The major cause of adult sibling rivalry is perceived injustices that occurred in the past. Many times parents are blamed for favoring one child over another. Generally speaking, parents should resist any wholesale dredging up of childhood grievances, because every person involved is going to have a different recollection of what occurred. What parents can do is offer a simple statement such as, "I'm sure I made mistakes. I'm sorry if I caused you pain."

We expect adults to be able to overlook minor inequities, but humans tend to have an immediate and visceral reaction to what they see as unfair treatment. Many other individuals have a hard time letting go of a grudge, even one that dates back to childhood. Parents of adult children sometimes feel that their children should just be able to get over it. But because these feelings aren't logical but instead are rooted in emotion, it does little good to appeal to to reason.

Some counselors and therapists who deal with family issues believe that past problems must be explored before healthy relationships can develop. This process, however, is lengthy and messy and doesn't always succeed. That's why some of those who work with families concentrate on creating healthy patterns in the present rather than digging into the past.

Other Factors in Adult Sibling Rivalry

Which sibling relationships are commonly troubled by rivalry? Brother-brother relationships are the most likely to be rivalrous, which is no surprise as males are generally perceived as more competitive than females. Whether that competitiveness is innate or cultural is up for debate. Sister-sister relationships are the least likely to be troubled, with mixed gender relationships falling in the middle. 

The person that a brother or sister chooses as a spouse or partner can also be a factor in adult sibling relationships. Many times the initial reaction to a sibling's choice of mate is disapproval. Often siblings feel that the chosen partner isn't good enough or doesn't fit into the family. According to a study also cited in Psychology Today, two-thirds of adults have stated that they are less close with a sibling due to issues with a sibling's mate.

Finances can also complicate sibling relationships, especially if there are clear differences in financial success among siblings. This can cut two ways. First, less-successful siblings may feel inferior to their brothers and sisters. They may even avoid being around their siblings because it serves as an uncomfortable reminder of the differences in their fortunes.

In another pattern, less-successful siblings may be constantly helped by family members. Brothers and sisters who have worked hard for financial success may feel that their less successful siblings are being rewarded for their failure. They may feel that being bailed out of financial difficulties just serves to perpetuate the problem.

When Children Are Involved

When adult siblings have children of their own, relationships can be even more complicated. Grandparents who seem to have favorites among the grandchildren can further exacerbate the problem. It's very difficult for grandparents to treat their grandchildren with strict equality. Factors such as age and geographical distance can have a large impact on grandparent-grandchild closeness. Still, parents may resent it when their child doesn't get an equal share of the grandparents' attention, no matter what extenuating circumstances are present.

Grandparents should strive to minimize the differences in their interactions with grandchildren, even if they can't make everything strictly equal. 

Avoiding Unreal Expectations

Tolstoy famously said, "Happy families are all alike." Although they may be alike in some ways, happy families actually demonstrate a spectrum of behaviors. No one should be dissatisfied with the way a family functions just because it doesn't match the behavior of another high-functioning family. Some families are naturally warm and social, while others families are made up of individuals who need more space. Some experts even feel that a family can be too close

What Grandparents Shouldn't Do

Parents never lose the impulse to fix things for their children, but in the case of warring adult siblings, it's an impulse they should resist. They shouldn't act as mediators. If the situation is so serious that mediation is in order, a qualified professional should be consulted.

Parents should definitely not take sides in conflicts, as that will simply seem like another example of favoritism, another injustice. Parents should also refrain from expressing their opinion about the conflict in confidence to other family members. Sooner or later something that is said will be repeated to the wrong person. Then the parent may be ostracized or marginalized. Family estrangement can be the result. That can be very painful for grandparents, who may be cut off from grandchildren.

Promises of inheritances and other items of monetary value should never be used to bribe or reward adult children. Guilt-tripping is another strategy that parents should avoid at all costs.

What Grandparents Can Do

The good news is that sibling rivalry usually diminishes through the years. Still, most grandparents don't want to wait indefinitely to have a harmonious family. So what exactly can they do to diminish conflict between their grown children?

Remember that old parenting trick of setting expectations? Grandparents can send a clear message that they expect adult siblings to get along and to work on any issues that they have.

They can suggest that the siblings give up on trying to work out past grievances and simply concentrate on creating the kind of relationship they want in the future. Realistically speaking, setting expectations won't always work, just as it doesn't always work when parents expect kids to do their homework or take out the trash. Still, it is worth trying. 

Most of the time, grandparents should include all the siblings in family gatherings, where they should be expected to put their differences aside and be civil to each other. If the situation becomes so dire that family gatherings are out of the question, grandparents should strive to maintain a good relationship with all parties, even if they have to socialize separately