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Family Dynamics

Driving the Treatment of Sibling Issues: Theories Can Help

Some basic knowledge of family therapy can help when sibling struggles arise.

Depending on the nature of someone’s family, a few clinical theories can help when working with sibling issues in one’s own family. Issues usually arise around: 1) parental favoritism; 2) the care of ailing and dying parents; and 3) the division of the estate and personal mementos after parents die.

Parental favoritism for one sibling often starts when children are young and continues into adulthood. But we also found in our research that favoritism can begin in adulthood and can be engendered by one sibling marrying a spouse that is a better or worse fit for the family, by a sibling not launching appropriately, or by a sibling living closer to or farther from a parent.

Caring for parents who are ill or dying can cause disputes between siblings. Not only is the potential loss of the parent stressful, but the costs of care and the time involved can push families to the brink. At a minimum, siblings may have to decide what level of care is needed and who will monitor the care. Making such decisions often require siblings to agree. If they have not been close and have different financial and time constraints, agreeing may be difficult.

Arguments about the division of the estate or about who was promised what when parents die are also fodder for sibling strain. If Mother tells one daughter that she could have a prized ring and then tells the second daughter the same thing, because she forgot she promised it to the first daughter, reasonable people could struggle over ownership.

Should an estate be evenly divided if one sibling has significantly greater resources due to the choice of a career or the choice of a spouse, while the other joins the Peace Corps or remains single? Should the sibling who lives closest and does the most caregiving be compensated more for his/her/their time?

Basic knowledge of family therapy theories can help with these struggles. If one is a follower of Structural Family Therapy, the establishment of culturally appropriate boundaries between generations would be the target. How might that look?

When a parent is showing favoritism by talking negatively to Sibling A about Sibling B, Sibling A could ask the parent to stop, that she does not want to be the recipient of such conversation about B. By doing that, she is withdrawing from a coalition with the parent and drawing a boundary around the sibling coalition. Further, siblings could agree to not talk about the other sibling when talking with the parent in an effort to further strengthen the sibling coalition.

If one is a follower of Virginia Satir and Experiential Therapy, the ability to communicate clearly with siblings would be the target. How might that look? When siblings are together to discuss the course of treatment for a parent who is ailing or dying, there could be a request for an open expression of feelings.

Siblings would use “I” messages, acknowledge that they will not always be on the same page nor expect themselves to be and that they will be accepting of others’ feelings. Siblings have to be comfortable, though, hearing what everyone is feeling and have the ability to accept it without being defensive. Clear communication flows best when verbal and non-verbal cues are consistently conveying the same message.

If one is a follower of Murray Bowen’s Family Systems Theory, the ability to step back and look at the family history would be important. How might that look? Siblings dealing with the death of the parent and the division of property would think about what previous generations had done in this situation and whether that was a model to emulate. If the past can be prologue, an awareness of what has happened before might give siblings a cognitive map to understand their own and their siblings’ behavior.

Families are complex vehicles. Knowing what the options are when driving down intergenerational highways can help siblings sort out where the ghosts are and where the future lies.


Greif, G. L. & Woolley, M. E. (2016). Adult sibling relationships. New York: Columbia University Press.