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When Siblings Struggle

October 20, 2010

"Who said you could wear my sweater?"

Most parents of teens have heard that complaint — the outcry when one sibling "borrows" something belonging to the other, and without permission. The words reflect an older teen's natural sensitivity to personal boundaries, an expression of the adolescent stage in which separating from family and establishing one's own identity becomes the all-important psychological task.

A study published in the March/April 2010 journal Child Development reported that sibling conflict involving older teens tends to erupt primarily around personal boundary issues — borrowing clothes, hanging around when the older teen's friends are present, rummaging in the teen's room without permission, and the like.

Here are some steps you can take to help minimize conflict between your teen and his or her siblings:

  • Encourage the kids to make an agreement with one another that they won't take things from each other's room without asking permission first. (And when a violation occurs, teach them to say: "Why are you breaking our agreement?")
  • Encourage them to make an agreement that they won't enter one another's rooms without permission, and without knocking first when the door is closed.
  • Push them to create a plan for how they will interact when friends are around, either at home or out in public. Some teens may be fine with a sibling joining in; others would be mortified.
  • Offer your help as a mediator when they're unable to resolve conflict on their own, but only as a last resort. It's much better to stay out of their arguments. When they come to you, they're usually hoping to find an ally to join their side; don't take the bait. "I know you two can work this out," is a vote of confidence that they'll find a solution themselves. And then usher them into another room to settle their dispute without disturbing the rest of the family.
  • Seek professional help if a chronic level of conflict has begun negatively impacting your family life.