Tactics To Help Smooth Over Adult Sibling Rivalry

If you had the experience as a kid of being ambushed, mocked, or even bullied by a sibling, hopefully, that relationship has evened out in adulthood, which it often does naturally. But, even though now we're theoretically more fluent in emotional intelligence and have access to the therapeutic tools that our developing kid brains didn't, sibling rivalry is real and can continue into adulthood.

Children tend to look at parents as God-like figures — they're the all-powerful givers of snacks and we depend on them for every aspect of our survival. As far as we're concerned, they have superpowers, until we later reflect on their worldview and reckon with their more human side. Within a family system, a challenging reality is that parents form preferences between their kids. Children intuitively feel that their parent may prefer their siblings, and this differentiation is at the root of the jealousy, rage, and competitiveness that can — if unchecked — morph into adult sibling rivalry. An adjacent issue is eldest daughter syndrome, where the oldest girl in the household is unfairly tasked with some of the parents' responsibilities, causing her to resent her siblings for the freedoms she no longer has.

Noticing the signs of adult sibling rivalry

One of the most vulnerable times of the year for some families is the holiday season. A holiday gathering can be a place where there's gift-giving and appreciation, but hurt feelings and painful patterns also tend to emerge. You can use your memory of these get-togethers and take a mental snapshot of the family dynamics to get clarity.

Feelings of jealousy might arise; despite all of your accomplishments (which your parents don't seem to recognize), your sibling is somehow still the Golden Child. You might feel competitive with your sibling, which could lead to bragging about your career, relationship, or possessions. If a dispute erupts, you might insist that your parents take your side and find yourself building a "case" against your sibling. Even worse, if you deliberately try to undermine them (or vice versa), make them feel bad, or sabotage them, then the rivalry will go off the rails. Don't lose heart, though. If you want to, you can reverse this pattern and seek peace.

Causes of sibling rivalry

Children not only feel, but are deeply affected by the knowledge that a parent prefers their sibling and, seemingly, loves them more. And there's evidence to back it up. In examining well-being, the authors of the 2010 study, "Mothers' Differentiation and Depressive Symptoms Among Adult Children" found that a parent's preference for another child caused depression that continued into adulthood. They stated, "The findings indicated that, across all 3 domains [closeness, expectations for care, and conflict], maternal differentiation was related to higher depression scores." Those preferences also affected the other kids, including the favored child, who felt pressure to perform at an expected level.

However, it's worth noting that the truth is often more complex. A parent may seem to favor a child because they share similar personality traits, which create shortcuts in communication and easy, intimate fluency. Your sibling might live ten miles from your folks versus your 2500-mile distance, and that proximity means they'll get together and share experiences that you can't. Another possible factor for rivalry is when you feel like the black sheep because you have diametrically opposed politics, ethics, worldview, or personal identity. Despite their preferences, healthy parents love their children equally.

Tactics to smooth it over

As with any interpersonal dynamics, you can only shift yourself. When there's conflict, we often desperately want the other person to change. A great tactic to let go of adult sibling rivalry is to accept your sibling as they are. Drop the pressure of wanting them to change.

A daily gratitude practice helps us refocus on what we have, our talents, our family, and our accomplishments and, if done regularly, can start softening and dissolving jealousy. It also diverts us away from automatically engaging in comparison by refocusing us on ourselves. In person, choose to let unpleasant comments pass through like a weather system. Don't engage the rivalry. Instead, discuss it openly. Or, try shadow work to embrace your faults.

We love this strategy via Dr. Sheri Jacobson, psychotherapist and founder of Harley Therapy — if you feel the sting of your own jealous, competitive, or even destructive behavior towards your sibling, it's important to repair that. Think of a good friend of yours, someone who made a big mistake and is having trouble letting it go. Write her name in bold letters on a page, then write her a caring letter reminding her to let herself off the hook. Tell her she made the best decision she could in the moment, and that she knows better now. Remind her of her stellar qualities. When you're done, cross out her name and write in your own. Read the letter aloud to yourself. Know that repair is possible.