Your siblings have seen you at your best — and at your worst. Which means they know how to push your buttons like nobody else. Keeping the peace with the people you’ve grown up with can feel especially difficult when you and your siblings have been competing to be your family’s main attraction since you guys first met in the maternity ward. But there are some strategies for coping with your siblings in a more, ahem, adult way of interacting. Here are some go-to strategies you can trot out when your sister starts whining yet again at your holiday dinner about how you always get all of the attention and never kept curfew.
Interactions with siblings are especially difficult because the relationship is often based on what we suspect our siblings are thinking and old perceptions they have about who we are. That’s why having a talk to establish a fresh start has got to be priority number one. Johanna Sozio, a licensed family and relationships counselor practicing out of North Carolina, weighs in on how to make that happen: “My first recommendation is to attempt to have a discussion with regards to what areas are impacting the relationship. Whether it be the age-old comparison game or sibling rivalry, attempt to share what you’ve noticed.” Remember that your sibling will see right through you if you try to gloss over an issue or play down your own role in conflict. Sozio advises, “Never start with an accusatory tone, because that can heighten the tone of the conversation to a negative one. Be open and honest without being fake.” Having this conversation in a neutral territory, like a cafe, can make it easier to be mature.
REWRITE THE RULES
Common problems that sibling relationships see are competitiveness, jealousy, passive-aggressive behavior, hurtful criticisms, and refusing to acknowledge each other as equally adult. It’s possible that your sibling doesn’t want to be combative but is holding on to hurt from the past that clouds their eyes and makes them resentful. It’s also possible that an older sibling is so used to being the one in charge that they can’t be fully respectful of younger family members without reducing their own self-importance. It’s possible to gently hold up a mirror to these tendencies by providing examples of what hurts your feelings and explaining how the situation looks from your point of view.
If the conversation still doesn’t lead to a mutual acceptance of blame and apologies all around, Sozio advises that you settle by incorporating boundaries. Say something that implies maturity but also implies a consequence. For example, “I can’t accept it when you tease me about my childhood in front of my significant other. Next time it happens, I’m going to have to excuse myself from our family gathering.” Be absolutely clear about the specific action that bothers you, and don’t try to get everything sorted out at once.
ACCEPT THE OUTCOME
If being specific about your concerns and establishing boundaries don’t work, you need to revisit the question of what you want your relationship with your sibling to look like. Trying to be more impressive than you at family gatherings or dismissing opinions that you offer doesn’t always qualify as toxic behavior, but that doesn’t mean you have to let your grudges accumulate in the darkest closet of your heart, either. Address things as they happen, and move on. Instead of telling on your sibling to your parents like you would have during childhood, call them out in the moment with a kind directive if it’s necessary. “You know that I don’t like that — I’m disappointed you’re doing it anyway” is enough of an acknowledgment to make your feelings known.
Remember that you can’t change other people: You can only work on yourself. If a sibling fails to see how their actions are a problem, that doesn’t mean that you are the one who’s failed. “If you do your part by communicating, expressing your feelings, and setting healthy boundaries, then you’ve got to be proud of that. It’s a difficult task!” Sozio reminds us. “You’re not obligated to [succeed at] changing your siblings, but you do have to accept who your sibling is.” Researching psychological theories like how birth order shapes personality might help you better understand your siblings and give you more peace about the role that you play in your particular family situation.
When you see your sibling in a deeper downward spiral that doesn’t directly affect just you, such as addiction or self-harm, seek out professional guidance to establish ways to help them without being pulled down with them. Groups like Al-Anon can provide support for dealing with family members who are in a cycle of addiction.
While we tend to see ourselves as responsible for our siblings to a certain extent, they are people who exist completely separately from us, and they have a right to make their own decisions. The big takeaway here is to let yourself off the hook.