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Family Dynamics

Sibling Conflict in Adolescence

Conflict between adolescents is one way siblings get along.

In parent counseling, clients will frequently ask, "Why can't our kids just get along?" "Why must they continually fight with each other?"

Parents grow tired of the constant bickering, teasing, competing, and ongoing provocation between their children and that usually becomes more frequent during adolescence, a more combative and aggressive age.

The adults can't understand why their children won't stay off each other's case, get out of each other's way, leave each other alone, and just be friends.

For most parents, sibling conflict is just an additional and unnecessary source of family stress. "Who needs it?" they ask.

The answer is "the children do." Fighting is not a sign of siblings not getting along. It is how they get along, using conflict to test their power, establish differences, and vent emotions with a familiar family adversary. It's how they manage their love-hate relationship, each side of which is compelling in its own way. In healthy sibling rivalries, they can be both good companions and good opponents with each other. In unhealthy rivalries, there is only enmity.

And of course, fighting has recreational value too. It gives them something to do when bored around the home or in the back seat of the car or even when out at the restaurant. When things are dull, conflict can liven up family life.

Conflict from sibling rivalry is built into family life for children as soon as they start to compete for dominance, parental attention, parental support, and household resources. Who gets what? Who does what? Who goes first? Who gets the most? Who's right? Who's best? Who's in charge? Who wins?

Unless your children are more than eight to ten years apart in age, there will be sibling rivalry between them. And even then, the older child will probably resent the younger for getting away with more, getting given more, and being allowed to do more earlier than the older child was at the younger child's age. While the much younger child will resent the older for acting bossy like another parent and enjoying freedoms the younger is denied.

No wonder many couples now elect to have an only child. They don't have to listen to all the sibling arguments, break up all the sibling spats, or worry about dividing the parental attention and resources they have to give.

Of course, the downside of being an only child is often manifest in his or her significant adult relationships later on. By missing out on the rough and tumble of sibling conflict, the young adult only child may be woefully inexperienced with the complexity of sharing and have a low comfort, little tolerance, and limited understanding for confronting and resolving normal differences in intimate relationships.

The more similarity there is between your children—same sex, close in age, similar interests—the more sibling conflict over dominance and differentiation there is likely to be.

The major exception to this is identical twins for whom similarity creates an unusual intimacy from sharing a single identity between them. They can feel incomplete in absence from each other, and they can have unspoken means of knowing what is going on in each other. They may even construct a secret language between them that no one else understands. And as one adult said when her identical twin died: "I feel like I have lost part of myself." Indeed she had.

For fraternal twins or un-twinned siblings, however, similarity only increases conflict by increasing the need to win the competition and establish individuality. To reduce some of this need for conflict from inadequate diversity (or excessive similarity), parents can encourage separate social circles for siblings, separate interests and activities for siblings, separate goals and future directions for siblings, separate times to be with individual parents, even attendance at separate schools. Of course, parents should encourage joint activities that both siblings enjoy doing together.

In general, the more diversity between siblings, the less they have to fight to differentiate from one another and contest dominance between them. The exception is when parents favor one individual path or definition over the other when one child is seen as "good" or "successful" and the other is seen as not.

The issue of parental "fairness," however, remains a divisive one. Charges the 14-year-old: "Since I'm older, but you should treat me differently and give me a later bedtime. That's only fair!" Charges the 12-year-old: "Since we're both your children, you should treat us the same and give us the same bedtime. That's only fair!" Both siblings are right. Fairness is treating people differently to honor their individuality and the same to honor their equality.

Fairness is a double standard, siblings demanding to be treated the same and different at the same time. Parents can't win. Fair to one child often seems unfair to the other. Maybe treating them equally unfairly is the answer. That way, both children can agree: "Mom and dad are just not fair!" To which parents can reply: "We are going to treat you each according to what we believe are your individual needs."

Older and younger children frequently engage in a positional conflict. Younger child provokes conflict to get the older child's attention, often using imitation to prove "I am your equal!" "Stop copying me!" complains the older child.

The older child puts the younger down to assert supremacy, teasing to show, "You are my inferior."

"Stop making fun of me!" complains the younger child.

Putting the older child in charge of the younger, when the adults are not around and unless the ground rules are firmly set by parents, can often inflame positional conflict and add fuel to the competitive fire.

Just because conflict is built into sibling relationships doesn't mean that parents should passively accept that reality, play hands-off, and let it go. Sometimes, because they are tired of the bickering, parents may want to separate the combatants to get a little peace and quiet.

More important, however, is parents maintaining a watchful eye on the conflict so it doesn't get out of hand and do either child emotional or physical harm. To this end, parents must act as governors of the conflict in four ways.

First, parents must hold both children jointly responsible for whatever conflict arises between them. It always takes two to create a conflict because conflict is cooperative. And it only takes one to stop it because when one refuses to play the game of opposition, then there is no partner willing to fight or argue back. If you try to determine "who started it" you will only go backward. They both started it.

Second, when you can, coach them in ways to settle their differences, but don't mediate or impose an outside resolution. If they can learn to take turns and compromise with each other, for example, those skills can serve them well later on. Remember: "Blessed be the mediator, he will be hated by both sides." Mediation can be a thankless role. Each agrees you play favorites: "You always take the other person's side!"

Third, monitor the safety of the conflict. The conflict between siblings should never be used as an excuse by either sibling to do physical or emotional harm. In a family conflict, the rule of safety must prevail. To let one child continue to injure the other only encourages the mean teasing or hitting child to think it's okay to abuse the victim child, that it's okay for the victim child to be abused. In these situations, the victim child will grow very angry at parents for allowing this mistreatment to go on, while the tormenting child will be encouraged to continue his or her abusive ways.

Fourth, declare that while you will hold both children cooperatively responsible for any conflict between them since joint participation is always required; you will hold them each separately accountable for conduct in that conflict. Any time either child violates the rule of safety by hurting the other, that child will have family business to discuss with you.

Next week's entry: Adolescence and why freedom isn't free.