Jenna, 16, to her 14-year-old sister, Amber:
“You’re too fat for that dress and you’re wearing too much eyeliner. You look like a slut.”
It’s not just that they can be mean, not just the typical squabbling where they get along fine the next day. Some teen siblings seem to truly hate each other.
The girls’ mother:
“They say really cruel things to each other. And you should hear their tone. There is no nice time. They won’t be in the same room together.”
Why does this happen? Real hatred between siblings.
The reasons can be many. Jealousy: One does better in school, socially, in getting parent attention. Or one of them may be depressed, moody, constantly putting stress on herself – all of her unhappiness taken out on the one human with whom she feels totally safe. Or the most common reason of all: They think their parents always take the other’s side.
What do you do if you have two teenage siblings who genuinely seem to hate each other? First, you can take comfort in the fact that it probably won’t last. In my experience, the child issues usually don’t translate into adult bitterness.
But in the meantime, there are a number of things you can do. The parental instinct is to try to negotiate a resolution. All too often, however, they just up their bickering, each trying to get you on her side.
What you need to do is listen to them. Individually.
“Mom, she puts on this act, and you always believe her.”
“I know your sister can be hard to live with sometimes.”
“Sometimes? How about always?”
Listen, empathize, but don’t expect them to see reason. You might say: “You have to understand that she is younger than you. You need to try not to get so upset by what she does.”
The above talk almost always backfires: “See, it’s exactly what I’ve been saying. She gets you to believe everything she says and you don’t see it at all.”
More useful is to look at yourself. Is there anything that you are doing that is feeding the conflict? Does one or the other get significantly more attention – because she’s a star, or because she’s the opposite, the one who needs more academic or social support?
If so, be vigilant about giving equal time and attention – and praise. And make sure that you have at least some – it does not have to be that long – regular one-on-one time with each.
Be honest with yourself. Have you in some way favoured one over the other, or not always been completely fair? If so, it is good to own up to it: “If at times I have been more critical of you than of your sister, that was unfair. I’ll try not to in the future.”
The above goes a long way to ease resentment: “Yeah, that’s what I’ve been telling you. So can I get some money to go to the mall?”
Last, when they do battle, stop it. Separate them – earlier, rather than later. You want to head off bullying and talk that is damaging. You may not be able to stop it from happening when you aren’t there, but you can stop it now.
And then one day, a funny thing happens. As they move into young adulthood, little by little the bad feelings recede. Adult siblings may not always like each other, but more often than not, it is because of adult issues and conflicts, not leftover teen resentments.
The girls’ mother was surprised as she observed her elder daughter actually compliment her younger sister’s outfit, and then later she spoke in a friendly way about her younger sister.
“You don’t hate her?” asked her mother.
“Why not? What happened? What’s different?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t have those same feelings toward her any more. She’s changed. I’ve changed. We’re not kids any more.”
Teenaged hatred can be very real. But more often than not – it can seem like a miracle – it goes away. It just isn’t there any more. Gone. And now they’re best friends.
“We’re buying matching outfits. Don’t you think we look good?”
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including I’d Listen to My Parents if They’d Just Shut Up . E-mail him questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.