Improving Sibling Relationships

Q: Among my five children are two girls, ages 13 and 15. My older daughter is very serious and my younger is much more playful. They barely speak to one another, and that’s the way it’s been for a long time. It’s sad to think that they are so distant. They’re not cruel to each other — they just live in “two different worlds.” Do you have any idea what could be done to help them be closer?

 A: It is not a simple task to change the quality of a relationship that has existed for so many years within a family. It is possible when both sides desire change; when the status-quo has become too uncomfortable for them to tolerate. If it is you who desires a change in the relationship of your daughters, but neither of them is particularly motivated, such change is more difficult to accomplish.

Teenagers are in the process of defining themselves and forming an individual identity. Envisioning their parents and family helps them decide what traits they want to incorporate into their emerging selves, and which parts they want to reject. A child can easily reject a parent’s particular character flaws, and then, unfortunately, resent her parents for being imperfect.

It is challenging for parents to intervene to create harmony and to develop a relationship among two teenage siblings. A child can quickly turn around and say, “It’s your fault she’s so difficult to deal with! You’ve spoiled her!” If a parent attempts to deal directly with such a problem,
s/he needs to be sensitive to this stage in an adolescent’s development.

The parent should speak to the teens individually at first to hear how each views the sibling relationship, and then suggest meeting together.  If both siblings are agreeable to this, and the parent is well prepared in knowing how to address each child’s concerns, there is a fair chance for success.

A parent can explain that there are behaviors that cannot be changed so readily (e.g., a sibling who takes a long time to do homework, and how that affects the daily family routine). Siblings need to integrate tolerance as an essential part of their human development. A parent can help a child learn how to work with the limitations of family members, thereby imparting a valuable life skill.

Of course, there are always areas where siblings can — and should — compromise and modify their behavior. Often people do not stop to hear what actually bothers the other, and do not think it will make a great difference in their weak relationship. Small gestures for “peace” often show the attempt to care and to give, and have a great effect on human relationships. These ideas can be discussed in a joint meeting with siblings.

Another helpful attempt (once communication has improved) is enlisting siblings to work together on a given “fun” project — perhaps making a surprise party for a family member. This could help create a warmer relationship between the sisters.

Though difficult at first, the work of improving a sibling relationship can be rewarding. Even verbal disagreement is better than ignoring one another!

Much can be accomplished by opening the doors of communication.