Adult Sibling Conflicts

Q: I know that you usually write about issues having to do with children of a younger age, but we are still parents once our children marry and leave the house. At this point, different issues come up — ones that friends don’t necessarily speak about each other — as it can be embarrassing to share petty fights when your children are supposed to be adults. When small children have tantrums and do not listen to rules, it can be discussed as typical parenting issues. But siblings not speaking to each other for years is more uncomfortable to speak about, and I’m afraid that this situation will occur between my son and daughter.

My 30-year-old son, married with a few children, can be very opinionated, and rarely admits that he made a mistake. I wouldn’t say that he’s extremely arrogant, but rather he is often heard saying : “I knew that a long time ago.”

Whatever one of his siblings does, he focuses on what isn’t good enough, on what’s missing, instead of being dan l’kaf zechus and appreciating their efforts. I don’t think he was so much this way growing up. His wife is very competitive, and always compares other people. I think that it may be her input that kind of molded this attitude.

I remember someone once telling me that you should daven that your married children don’t take on the negative traits and attitudes of their spouses. Whatever caused his current behavior, when one sibling complains to me about this older brother, I don’t know how to respond.

This brother — I’ll call him Yitzy — gets quite annoyed when someone in the family asks him for his opinion and then doesn’t follow his advice. Yitzy then complains about why they bothered asking when they weren’t going to listen to him anyway.

I get the feeling that he has this great need to be recognized. He has a job that doesn’t earn him tons of money, but it’s a decent job. And he’s been part of Daf Yomi for years. He’s kind of a regular guy.

I’m just worried that one of these days, Yitzy might take issue with one of his siblings and not let go so easily. There is one sister, close in age, who used to be close to him. She would listen to all his ideas, and try to do what he said. Now that she’s her own person, he resents it and feels that she doesn’t respect him. They both constantly complain to me about each other. What should my response be?

A: Without knowing the specifics of their present conflict, it’s difficult to know the most effective way of responding. As you correctly point out, your son’s need to be recognized and taken seriously seems to be paramount in his life at this point. A good number of men in our society feel that they can only be respected if they have a very “respectable” job, are able to amass a large income or have an outstanding knowledge of Gemara (and are currently learning). If one is not in the above-mentioned categories, it is sometimes difficult to muster up a good sense of self-esteem. I don’t know if this is what’s driving his actions and responses, or if they are due to issues in his marriage, work or family system.

The question presented is: How should parents respond when grown children complain to them about their siblings? It is a delicate balance indeed to show empathy to the person who feels pain but not seem to take sides. As always, any person’s subjective reality is just that — subjective. Unfortunately, a parent’s attempt to give the other sibling the benefit of the doubt can backfire. That child might say, “I’m not surprised you’re saying that. You’ve always liked her better!”…

A child who is less competitive, less angry and more peace-seeking may be open to such an approach. However, a parent is still taking a chance. If the parent starts to analyze the sibling being complained about (to decrease animosity), this information can later be repeated to that sibling at another time when there is “peace” between them. The consequences of this can become quite catastrophic.

After being empathetic, a parent can ask open-ended, non-judgmental questions — leading toward possible solutions — without incriminating either party. If this attempt also leads to escalated conflicts, it is best to say, ”I’m really sorry that I can’t help more. Every time I try to help, I think it only makes things worse.”