Will Our Grown Kids Ever Get Along?

Why sibling rivalry persists in adulthood

Posted Aug 24, 2017

It’s what we hope for, but it’s not a done deal. “Maybe over my dead body,” mused the parent of three children who’ve been competing with and complaining about each other since childhood – over three decades ago! . A recent survey by Ameriprise Financial Family Wealth Checkup http://www.nextavenue.com  indicated that only 15% of siblings age 25-70 have conflicts with each other about money, and when they do it’s about their parents’ money. But there are other issues that divide them, some stemming from their early years and others manifested in their relationships once they’ve left home, when it’s up to them, not their parents, to maintain or disengage their connection.

It’s difficult for parents of feuding sibs to resist the natural urge to mediate between or among them, but often that leads to more strife. Even harder to avoid is triangulating – attempting to influence or communicate with one sibling  through another.  “If you’d just talk to your brother about (why he drinks so much, never introduces us to his girlfriends, is so short-tempered with your father)” etc., or “You really should tell your sister that  (her father is very upset with her, she ,has terrible taste in boyfriends,  why doesn’t she ever call us? ) etc.   Triangulation burdens all the relationships involved – yours with them and theirs with each other. ,If you have a question (as opposed to a questionable comment!), ask it directly – don’t set traps for your adult children or ask them to break confidences.

Jealousy is a prevalent theme in discussions of sibling rivalry; when it’s particularly intensely felt in adulthood,  most people express it by avoidance or denial, and except for occasional flare-ups (especially at family gatherings) those strategies work most of the time. But parental emergencies often bring sisters and brothers into close contact again. Sometimes this offers them an opportunity to step out of the roles that defined them as children – the feckless one, the favorite, the prince or the picked-on - and bring the skills and confidence they've developed as adults to the situation.  Other times the role reversal inherent in the emergency -  children caring foraging parents  - cathects and reenergizes all the issues and emotions that have plagued their sibling relationships since childhood.

In a recent article titled.  “Flying in a V  Formation” http://www.JournalofAppliedCommunicationResearch.com, researchers characterized recurrent themes of (in)equity, reality and togetherness in adult siblings’ narrative explanations of shared parental caregiving that reflected their sense of fairness, of ideal vs. actual sharing, and of their interconnectedness.  ,  It reflects findings of other researchers that coming together in a spirit of unity to carry out critical responsibilities to their parents is a vital task for adult siblings and when  they make an effort to offer support and gratitude to each other throughout the process, they provide a more collaborative caregiving environment. (Amaro, L.M., ibid  Vol. 45(1)2017).

The death of one or both parents frequently changes adult sibling relationships... Some common patterns emerge, ranging from “even closer” to “from bad to worse.” (Greiff & Woolley, 2016 http://dx.doi.org/10. 1080/15524256.2015.1021435). And surviving children often jostle for position,  particularly if there is a parental estate to be settled.Some parents settle Issues about who controls the disposition of their personal effects, becomes their executor or trustee and wields their health care proxy well in advance of need; keeping the information to themselves may seem like the best way to avoid exacerbating tensions among their offspring, but in fact it makes it even harder for them to act cooperatively when they must, especially at a time when emotions are already heightened. A parent's deathbed is often the scene where many sibling dramas play out, especially over the issue of "letting go," - regardless of the expressed or even written wishes of the critically ill or comatose patient.

We all want our kids to feel that they've been treated fairly and equally after we die – “Even if I can’t quite manage it while I’m alive,” as one father told me, remarking on his painstaking efforts to equalize his estate, comprised primarily of a family business in which only two of his sons work, while the third has neither the skill nor interest to participate.  

Regardless of our dreams for our grown kids, sworn enemies may never be best friends, despite our efforts to bring them closer, treat them fairly in the disposition of our estates. and  remind them that blood is thicker than water. It’s up to them now,


  Halliwell, Wenzel-Egan and Howard  (2017) Journal of Applied Communication Research, vol.45