When your kids were tantrum-throwing toddlers who hit each other or temperamental teens who slammed doors in each others’ faces, you probably had tactics for controlling their behavior. And, during those tumultuous years, you probably convinced yourself that they would outgrow their contentiousness eventually. Unfortunately, not all siblings get along, even after they become adults, and you may still find yourself squeezed between your warring sons and daughters. Fortunately, there are experts on family relationships who have tips on how to help your fighting kids, and when you should stay out of the argument.
How to Help Your Children Avoid a Fight
Develop a separate relationship with each child. Even though your children are all grown up, they still need to know that they matter to you and that they matter equally. Competition between kids is often the root of conflicts, says Thomas Gagliano, a relationship expert and author of “The Problem was Me.” It’s no different from when they were young. “You have to give your kids time and show them that they are important to you,” explains Gagliano.
Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and author of “When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along,” says it’s helpful to acknowledge that your adult kids are different from each other and to establish individual relationships with them. If your child thinks that you like them less than their siblings, it’s best to discuss their feelings rather than dismiss them. “You’re better off coming from a place of empathy and trying to understand why your kid feels this way than just saying it’s not true,” advises Coleman.
And although you may not want to avoid family activities entirely, if your kids are arguing, this may be a good time to go out with them individually and to avoid family dinners as an interim measure, recommends Elizabeth Fishel, co-author of “Getting to 30: A Parent’s Guide to the Twenty-Something Years.”
Emphasize the importance of strong relationships. To reduce battles and bickering among your adult kids, it’s important to send a strong message about the benefits of good relationships between siblings, says Fishel. One way to do this is to talk about your own siblings and how your battles were resolved.
Gagliano recommends telling a story about how your own brother angered you or about the conflicts your mother and your aunt faced. “Tell your kids about how these situations can make you not want a relationship with your siblings, but that eventually people realize that they want to be close to their families,” says Gagliano. “It’s important to convey that good relationships are valuable and [that you have] the confidence that your kids can work out their issues,” adds Fishel.
Be transparent about financial issues. Some of the most contentious fights between siblings occur because one sibling feels that the other is receiving more money from their parents.
What makes it worse is when the parents keep it a secret, explains Fishel. “It’s much better to openly explain that one kid is going through a bad patch or needs money for something specific and then explain that when the other needs help you’ll be there for them, too,” she adds. Coleman advises parents to be mindful that they’re giving equally financially to their children and to be as conscientious and open as possible about money.
What to Do If a Fight Starts
Gagliano suggests that parents monitor the argument between their adult offspring to see if they can come to a resolution without parental involvement. If there’s no apparent resolution, and you decide that an intervention is required, there are ways to handle the disagreement in order to arrive at a more peaceful outcome for your family.
Don’t try to control the situation. Telling your kids that they have to stop bickering and get over their argument invalidates their feelings, says Gagliano. He suggests trying to remain nonjudgmental and letting them work out their differences. “You can’t guilt your kids into stopping a fight or into seeing you or their siblings more often,” says Coleman. “Guilt backfires and makes your adult kids more withdrawn.”
Acknowledge that you can’t stop the fight. “You can’t fix your kids’ issues with each other, they have to do it themselves now that they are adults,” explains Gagliano. Parents, particularly mothers, often feel as though they are bad parents if their kids don’t get along as adults, says Coleman. “You just have to accept the limitations of your own power,” he says. “Don’t feel guilty about something you can’t control. Just accept it and let it go.”
Listen, but don’t pick a side. Gagliano advises that parents should never agree with one kid or the other, but he does think that parents should listen to their children’s complaints. “Ask each individually how they are doing and about what’s going on,” he says. “You can’t fix the problem yourself, but you can validate their feelings and say you’re sorry if they are hurt or angry.”
Gagliano recommends that you should never excuse your kids to each other or defend their siblings because that can add to the tension. “You can empathize about a situation but never ally yourself with one child or another unless one of them is doing something truly terrible to the other,” says Coleman.
Avoid being the go-between. Stepping between your fighting kids could make them turn on you. If you’re not able to be entirely objective and even-handed when talking to your kids about their issues, then you could end up with each of them assuming you’ve picked a side, warns Gagliano. “Acting as a go-between doesn’t work,” says Coleman. “In fact, your kids will likely tell their siblings what you’ve said to each of them and you could end up with all of them angry with you.”
Consider whether you’re contributing to the problem. Complaints about favoritism are common in many families and can be the underlying issue when adult siblings fight. “If you are overtly or subtly favoring one child over the over, you could be contributing to their not getting along,” explains Coleman. “You can’t control your adult kids but you can control your own behavior.”
Gagliano says his mother labeled him and his brothers as the “smart one”, the “creative one” and the “good-looking one” – and that the resentment caused by those labels continues to plague their adult relationships. “Comparison is the death knell of sibling harmony,” says Fishel. “It’s never too late to stop comparing your kids and to appreciate each child for who they are.”
Ask for a favor. Although you can’t force your children to get along, you can ask them to be polite to each other once or twice a year so that you can see your family all together. “This works particularly well if you have grandkids because it’s natural to want to see them together,” says Coleman. “Most parents will be willing to be polite for the sake of their children and their nieces and nephews,” adds Coleman.
Lobby for a compromise. If your kids are arguing over something relatively simple such as restaurant choices or where to celebrate holidays, this might be one time that you can weigh in and resolve the issue with a logical compromise, advises Fishel. Make sure that you’re being fair to all your children when you offer your solution.
Often, the best approach when it comes to sibling fights is just waiting it out. As your kids mature and time passes, there’s likely to be a lessening of animosity between them, says Fishel. Just remember that most of the time it’s best for parents to stay out of an argument because they can just add fuel to the fire, suggests Fishel.
In the meantime, bear in mind that your days as a parent are never really over. How you handle parenting your adult kids can ease tension between the siblings. “United siblings are so much stronger than divided siblings,” remarks Fishel. “Tell your kids that even if they are bickering about minor things, it’s important to know they can lean on each other through emotional heartbreak or other frustrations. This becomes even more important later in life.”
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