Sibling Conflict and Perceived Favoritism

Q: My husband and I have four children, bli ayin hara; the oldest two are girls, ages 13 and 15, followed by a boy, 9, and a 2-year-old girl. The older girls get along well enough, but the 15-year-old has great anger towards her brother. She thinks he is spoiled by their father (which is true, to some extent), and that he can get away with things no one else can. My daughter insults her brother quietly (so we can barely hear it), and he responds pretty hysterically. It is difficult to control their arguments, because it’s hard to see how they begin. My son just runs to his father and cries.

My husband tells our daughter to be easy on her brother because he has a hard time in school; he has a lisp and boys sometimes tease him. If she is annoyed with her brother, my husband tries to placate her, and that annoys her even more; she wants to be understood, not pacified. Sometimes my husband yells at her for criticizing her brother, which further angers her. Her brother behaves obnoxiously just to get back at her, and then the crazy cycle continues. I’ve tried to break it, but no one wants to let the other one have the last word. It just goes on and on, over and over again. We need advice on how to improve relationships within our family.

A: Communication is essential with each person caught up in this cycle, each at his or her own level of understanding.

When talking to your husband, use reason and discuss what will work with your children rather than argue over which child is right or wrong (which has no answer, anyway). Your husband (as would most parents) will argue that he is not spoiling your son but is being sensitive to his needs. After all, he is the only boy in the house and has a speech impediment as well. Make an attempt to get your husband to see your daughter’s “subjective reality” about how he treats her brother (as you probably have already done), bearing in mind that her reality is not necessarily a truth or an untruth.

Your husband needs to work on improving his relationship with your daughter, which will indirectly decrease her animosity towards her brother. If your daughter feels a strong sense of unconditional love from her father, her perception of her brother’s being “spoiled” will bother her much less. Your husband should work on improving the general quality of his interactions with her, including facial expressions, paying her more focused attention and verbalizing specific positive appreciation of her character traits. If there is something she might feel is unfair, your husband should make it a point of explaining his rationale — not that a parent has to answer to a child, but to ensure that she does not feel slighted or ignored.

Your daughter needs to know that she should come to you if she has a complaint about her brother, and not take actions into her own hands. If she says that you don’t do anything anyway (a common complaint from children), you can reply, “When you’re a parent, you will see why parents make the decisions they do. I can understand why, at this point, it’s hard to understand.” She has been asked to feel compassion towards her brother, but is having difficulty internalizing this concept.

You don’t mention the subjects of your children’s conflicts, so I cannot comment on the actual issues that arise.

The concept of working towards a common good needs to be stressed with both children. Find opportunities to speak with each of them privately about sinas chinam and people being stuck in senseless arguments. Creating a common goal and reward which is meaningful to both of them is always a helpful tool in mending sibling relationships. Discussing negative communication patterns and ways to change their responses in future encounters is also extremely helpful.