Why do my kids hate each other?

Ok, they probably don’t hate each other as much as they struggle with sibling rivalries.  I wrote this article a while back, and it seems like a good time to share it again.  Although it’s focused on middle and high school students, it can be applied to younger siblings.

You and your teen
Managing sibling rivalries
By STEVE DEBENEDETTI-EMANUEL
Land Park News Family Columnist
steve@rivercitycounseling.com

Not long ago, I got a call from the parents of two adolescent girls.  They were concerned because their younger daughter’s grades had slipped significantly and her friends and behavior had changed drastically.  They’d suspected that she’d begun using drugs, and after careful consideration made the choice to drug test her.  When she tested positive they’d confronted her, and she admitted to smoking marijuana on a regular basis.

“Audrey” was about three minutes into her first session when she started sobbing as she told me about her older sister “Nancy,” who was a top student and well-loved by both peers and teachers.  She also had a really nice boyfriend and had never gotten in trouble for much beyond breaking curfew by a few minutes.

It was clear that Audrey felt that Nancy was her parents’ favorite.  When they were out with friends and family, they’d highlight Nancy’s successes. Although Audrey was extremely talented artistically and won awards at school and in local art contests, they’d say next to nothing about her accomplishments.  Instead, they complained about her academic struggles and how they hoped she’d focus less on art and more on her “real” schoolwork.  Over time, Audrey became jealous and resentful of her sister, and furious with her parents, and it was at that point that she’d started smoking marijuana regularly.

As much as we’d like to think rivalries between siblings end about the time they graduate from their pull-ups, it’s important for parents to realize that the competitions are alive and well during adolescence.  Although it’s impossible to prevent sibling rivalries altogether, parents can take steps to help minimize the negative effects of the struggles.

One vital step is to strive not to compare one teen’s successes to another.  If we focus on the skills and accomplishments of one child and give the other the message that they should work on developing the same skills, it’s a set-up for ill will to develop between them.  Had Audrey’s parents complimented her for her accomplishments, rather than focusing on areas in which she wasn’t as talented or successful as Nancy, Audrey’s struggles could have been less severe.

It’s also helpful to compliment your teen in public as frequently as possible.  While she might roll her eyes and look uncomfortable, she’ll eat-up the positive attention.  Had Audrey felt that she, too, was a star in her parents’ eyes, it’s likely she wouldn’t have been as affected by the positive attention they’d lavished upon Nancy.

Finally, spend quality one-on-one time outside your home with each of your teens.  Let them know that they can speak freely about how they’re feeling, and listen openly to the feedback you receive.  Should they give specific examples of how they’d like to be treated differently, consider them carefully and make changes when possible.  This would give them the message that their feelings are valid and important.  It would also increase the likelihood that they’d be open to hearing about your concerns and following your suggestions.

Fortunately, Audrey’s parents were receptive to my guidance and took steps to change how they treated her.  They focused on celebrating Audrey for her artistic talents, rather than comparing her to Nancy and criticizing her when she didn’t match-up.  This helped Audrey feel better, and the relationships with both her parents and sister improved significantly.  Before long, she no longer felt the need to get high, and her grades started improving steadily.

Steve DeBenedetti-Emanuel is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in the Sacramento area. Steve’s columns appear periodically in the Valley Community Newspapers.

5 Responses to Why do my kids hate each other?
  1. get over ex fast
    September 20, 2011 | 3:23 pm

    I’m just wondering if it’s okay to borrow a paragraph of this publication to use for my school project.

    • Steve DeBenedetti-Emanuel
      October 7, 2011 | 6:10 pm

      Sure. Please reference me when you do so, and please do so in the future, should you want to use my information again. Steve DeBenedetti-Emanuel, LMFT, would be the best title for me. Thank-you for asking and good luck with your work!

  2. Marla Sluiter
    December 30, 2012 | 8:54 pm

    My problem is that I have 2 girls, 3 years apart, (23 and 26) who are very mean to each other. Both are intelligent, were succesful in school, and were always recognized by their father as well as myself for their accomplishments. The older daughter is persuing a career as an opera singer, and the other daughter has a teaching degree. They also both have depression and anxiety disorders, probably because of history of OCD in both parents’ families. The youngest derides the oldest for going after a “non-traditional” career, which she “won’t make any money doing”. The oldest had a very diffucult time socially in school, and was considered “odd” or “strange” by her peers and her sister. The youngest says she hates her sister and gets very upset when her sister visits us. It is so bad now that both girls can only manage to be civil to each other for a short time. Christmas was a disaster! How do I manage the demands on me from both girls without feeding their anger towards each other? Of the two girls, the older one has always needed more emotional support, always asked “on a scale of 1-10, how well did I do?” etc. So of course, the youngest girl accuses me of discounting her “needs” in favor of the other one. The only thing I can think that I might have done wrong was to pay too much attention to the older girl because her emotional problems manifested themselves first. What advice does anyone have about this? What do I do? The youngest girl says that she no longer feels a part of our family.

    • Steve DeBenedetti-Emanuel
      December 31, 2012 | 3:40 pm

      Maria, thank-you for your comment. I’m so sorry to hear about the long-term issues your daughters are facing. In many ways, you’re describing what would be normal sibling rivalry, were your girls much younger. From what you’ve written, it seems that the younger of your two daughters is the more challenging of the two for you. Were both girls living nearby, I’d encourage family counseling. I’ve seen such counseling being helpful for adult children and their parents.

      In many ways, your younger daughter is making her older sister the reason for her struggles. Yet she is accomplished in her own right. Unfortunately, teachers aren’t always complimented as much as kids in the limelight. It’s more glamorous being an opera singer than teacher. Reminding her of this could be helpful. (I’m aware that you’ve probably already tried to do this.) Being in a career as a 23-year-old, in this difficult job market, is noteworthy. When she asks about 1-10, have you asked her, rather than given your opinion? When she answers support her and ask what she could have done differently. Then encourage her to do this.

      As much as it’s inevitable, I encourage you to try not to focus on what you could have done differently when they were younger. Beating yourself up over it does little to help things now. Oftentimes, as kids mature further into adulthood, rivalries calm somewhat (although they typically remain for years and years.) It’s not your responsibility to make things better for them. It’s their job to work out things between them, not yours. Reminding you’re younger daughter of this could be helpful. I could see some counseling for you being helpful, in order to help you let go some of the guilt over what you did/didn’t do.

      From another perspective, anxiety and depression calm often be helped by medications. Would one or both of them be open to this. Some gentle nudging could be helpful.

      Hope this helps. Please feel free to continue this conversation.

      • Patricia
        April 10, 2013 | 4:04 am

        Maria, thank-you for your comment. I’m so sorry to hear about the long-term isesus your daughters are facing. In many ways, you’re describing what would be normal sibling rivalry, were your girls much younger. From what you’ve written, it seems that the younger of your two daughters is the more challenging of the two for you. Were both girls living nearby, I’d encourage family counseling. I’ve seen such counseling being helpful for adult children and their parents.In many ways, your younger daughter is making her older sister the reason for her struggles. Yet she is accomplished in her own right. Unfortunately, teachers aren’t always complimented as much as kids in the limelight. It’s more glamorous being an opera singer than teacher. Reminding her of this could be helpful. (I’m aware that you’ve probably already tried to do this.) Being in a career as a 23-year-old, in this difficult job market, is noteworthy. When she asks about 1-10, have you asked her, rather than given your opinion? When she answers support her and ask what she could have done differently. Then encourage her to do this.As much as it’s inevitable, I encourage you to try not to focus on what you could have done differently when they were younger. Beating yourself up over it does little to help things now. Oftentimes, as kids mature further into adulthood, rivalries calm somewhat (although they typically remain for years and years.) It’s not your responsibility to make things better for them. It’s their job to work out things between them, not yours. Reminding you’re younger daughter of this could be helpful. I could see some counseling for you being helpful, in order to help you let go some of the guilt over what you did/didn’t do.From another perspective, anxiety and depression calm often be helped by medications. Would one or both of them be open to this. Some gentle nudging could be helpful.Hope this helps. Please feel free to continue this conversation.

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