Sibling Rivalry: My Teenagers are fighting with each other

QUESTION
My 16-year-old daughter has always been a strong character and a bit fiery, but recently she seems to be fighting with everyone. She is very competitive and always trying to pick fights, particularly with her younger sister who is a much more laid-back character. They are very close in age, just one year between them, and I think a lot of the conflict stems from jealousy. The younger has started to do well in school and our eldest is very competitive and puts her down.

It has got to a point where we can’t praise the youngest if she gets a good report or else the older girl will throw a tantrum. Don’t get me wrong, we try not to compare them and always try to be positive towards both of them. But to be honest, because the older girl is so negative and always in trouble recently, this is a lot harder.

ANSWER
Jealousy and rivalry between siblings are very common and a significant factor in many family conflicts particularly when one child is unhappy or “acting out”. Further, sibling rivalry can become particularly acute during adolescence when teenagers are trying to work out their individual identity, and what they stand for as distinct from other people in the family. At this time you may be also dealing with teenage rebellion as parents, which can make it a fraught time for everyone in the family.

Understanding sibling rivalry and competitiveness
At the heart of sibling rivalry is a fight for parents’ approval and attention. Children and teenagers frequently fear that their parents might approve or love one sibling more than another or that their parents’ approval is dependent on a certain quality or skill that their sibling might have more of. While, of course, as parents you strive to love each of your children equally and not to pit them against each other, much of the competitive pressure comes from outside the home. The educational system and many sporting disciplines emphasise attainment that distinguishes who is the best and who is the worst. This can be particularly difficult for teenagers if they are not performing as well as their brother or sister in these areas and can lead to conflict and poor self-esteem.

While, of course, as parents you strive to love each of your children equally and not to pit them against each other, much of the competitive pressure comes from outside the home. The educational system and many sporting disciplines emphasise attainment that distinguishes who is the best and who is the worst. This can be particularly difficult for teenagers if they are not performing as well as their brother or sister in these areas and can lead to conflict and poor self-esteem.

The educational system and many sporting disciplines emphasise attainment that distinguishes who is the best and who is the worst. This can be particularly difficult for teenagers if they are not performing as well as their brother or sister in these areas and can lead to conflict and poor self-esteem.

Sibling rivalry can be inadvertently reinforced by parents’ reactions
Without meaning to, your reactions as a parent can reinforce sibling rivalry. For example, any time you praise your youngest in front of the eldest (particularly around exam achievement if this is a sensitive issue), this can make her feel more insecure and even believe that you favour the younger girl.

In addition, if during an argument you intervene on the side of one of your girls, this can leave the other feeling you favour her sister. This happens even when you intervene for a good reason such as when your eldest daughter might appear to be in the wrong or “acting up” and shouting at her sister.

Praise and encourage them equally and uniquely
To counter this you need to go out of your way to make sure you provide your two daughters not just with equal amounts of attention and encouragement but you want to avoid praise that somehow makes a comparison or implies a criticism of the other.

As it is a sensitive issue, this might mean not praising your youngest for her education grades in front of the eldest for the moment. Instead, you might want to emphasise more “non-comparable” qualities such as “doing your best” or “being proud of your hard work”. When praising the two of them you want to emphasise qualities that both girls can aspire to as well any shared strengths and interests that might bring them together.

It is also important to encourage each of their unique and individual qualities (eg one has a passion for music and the other for art) that allow them to appreciate each other differently without competition. You want each girl to find their niche and place in life.

Empower them to sort out their own disputes
It is important not to take sides in any disputes or rows they might have but rather to empower them to sort out these disputes themselves.

Your role is not to judge who is wrong but rather to be a mediator and to help them work out how to manage things. If you do need to intervene, try to address both of them – “Listen, let’s take a moment for both of you to calm down and talk this out.”

And if you do need to correct them, make sure you hold them both accountable at some level. For example, you might say to the eldest, “You should try to explain your point without shouting” and to the youngest, “You should listen to your sister without rolling your eyes.”

Help them empathise with each other
When talking to them individually about problems, never judge the other and always help them empathise with their sister. For example, you might explain privately to the youngest that her sister is sensitive to a big deal being made of exam results and explain to the oldest that her younger sister finds loud conflicts hard to deal with.

You want to communicate that you understand both of them individually and that you are on both their sides in sorting things out.

Take steps to support their relationship with each other
Do what you can to help them spend time together and to enjoy each other’s company. Simple things like sending them on a shopping trip together to buy something for the family or putting them on the same team in a family game could all help.

You could also help them learn to get on by setting them a task such as organising a family celebration or decorating a room together for which they might earn a collective treat or reward if they work as a team.

In the long term, once they become less competitive in seeking your approval and more secure in their relationship with each other, you would expect them to be able to enjoy the other’s successes and to become close, supportive sisters as they grow up.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper. John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday. ‘Parenting Pre-Teens & Teenagers’ course with John Sharry Sunday 22nd October (9am-1pm) Talbot Hotel, Stillorgan, Dublin, details here.
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