Sibling Rivalry and Parent-Child Estrangement

Sibling rivalry can play a role in parent-adult child estrangement.

When children are growing up, tension between siblings sometimes becomes chronic.

In addition to differences in temperament, there may be ongoing concerns about favoritism or perceptions of scarcity in parental attention or affection.

Once a sibling relationship has become tense, parents may have to intervene — especially if children are too young to solve the problem on their own.

How parents respond to sibling rivalry can have a lasting impact on their own relationships with their children in adulthood.

If your estranged adult child has a troubled relationship with one or more siblings, you may want to include that fact in your accounting of things that could possibly need some repairs between you and your child.

Read on for tips on how to respond to accusations of favoritism, and how to help estranged adult siblings reconcile.

Accusations of Favoritism

The biggest obstacle to resolving feelings of favoritism is most parents’ denial of inequality in their behavior toward their children.

Because they know they love their children equally, most will either ignore such accusations, or actively dispute them.

For example, Juanita says to her parents, “You gave Daniel everything he wanted. But when I needed something, it was like pulling teeth to get it.”

Her parents immediately respond by saying, “That’s not true. We never got Daniel a car, but we got you your first one. Don’t you remember?”

They’re debating the assertion that Daniel got everything he wanted but Juanita didn’t, with a counterexample.

But facts won’t help here. The root problem is that Juanita has felt like a second-class citizen in her family for a long time.

What would it sound like if these caring parents reacted with curiosity instead of debate?

They might respond to Juanita’s statement with something like, “It sounds like things feel very unfair in our family when it comes to resources. Is that right?”

If Juanita confirms that, then her parents can validate her pain. They can apologize for the words and actions that gave her that awful impression.

Consistently feeling less valued than others is an unpleasant experience for most of us. So if that’s how Juanita feels, it’s easy to understand her bitterness.

Reflect and Validate

It’s tempting to say, “She’s just a difficult person.” And it may be true. Some people are more difficult than others.

But even difficult people need allies. Siblings are natural allies, based on shared history and proximity. So when siblings become rivals, it’s sometimes a sign of impaired family dynamics.

Rejected parents who address the underlying causes of sibling rivalry can help adult children heal, while also attending to their own relationship with them.

If sibling rivalry is part of the picture, here are some questions to ask yourself during an estrangement from an adult child.

What did I/we do (or not do) that could have given X the impression we preferred Y?

How did I/we respond to complaints of favoritism?

How much time and attention did I/we have for this child? How did I/we decide which child to give time or attention to?

The hardest thing for parents accused of favoritism is to validate the feelings behind those accusations. If you don’t agree that you preferred your other child(ren), what can you do?

Validate your child’s feelings. You don’t have to agree about why you did the things you did. But you can acknowledge the impact of your actions, and express regret for the pain your child experienced.

Look for reasons why he feels the way he does, not reasons why he shouldn’t feel that way. Emotions don’t respond to intellectual arguments. They can only resolve (and even change) when they’re accepted and understood.

Your adult child may feel betrayed, lonely, undervalued, invisible, misunderstood, or something else.

It’s hard to hear your child’s hurt. Yet it’s important to try to understand the hurt, rather than fix faulty perceptions.

If you know in your heart that you never played favorites, still validate those feelings. If you know in your heart that your child is right, validation will help both of you move toward peace.

Caught In the Middle

What if you want to help your adult children get along better — especially if your non-estranged adult child resents his estranged sibling?

Not taking sides is an age-old tactic designed to keep the peace. It’s fair. However, in important relationships, this approach leaves something to be desired.

“Don’t take sides” is good advice. But there’s still more parents can do.

Validate the feelings expressed on both sides. Try to understand the nature of any described offense, and let both adult children know that you understand their feelings (once you do).

Listen more than you talk, and try to provide comfort. Not by fixing things or trying to push them together, but by understanding the pain that’s keeping both of them from being able to make amends and reconnect.

Accept and tolerate the situation as it is. What we resist persists, but what we accept can change.

Once you’ve validated them and they’re ready to explore options, you can start to plant seeds of goodwill. “I know your brother respects you” is an example of a seed that, if true, may take root.

If it’s hard to find anything positive to say about their relationship, you might share the simple notion that the other sibling is no happier than this one about the state of things.

Be a goodwill ambassador. Never share anything that might make things worse between them. And do share anything that’s the least bit positive from one toward the other.

You can’t mend their relationship, but you can support them in doing so themselves. Validate feelings, without taking sides. Sow seeds of goodwill and avoid unnecessary sharing of potentially inflammatory information.

Your own openness to hearing complaints or grievances from your children will serve as a model for the defenseless curiosity and open-hearted compassion necessary for reconciliation.

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