If you grew up in a family with one or more siblings, you probably spent your childhood honing the art of a good old-fashioned argument.
Bickering with your siblings is as much a part of growing up as going to school or waiting for the tooth fairy. One moment you’re best friends, then you’re enemies, then you’re best friends again – all within the space of 20 minutes.
As you grow up, however, things tend to change. Unless you’re regressing into your teenage selves when you go home for Christmas, chances are things between you and your siblings are a little bit more stable – even if you disagree about things sometimes.
There are always those moments, however, when those disagreements morph into something else entirely. Whether it’s over life choices, money or family issues, arguments with a sibling can quickly turn toxic.
But why do arguments with a sibling tend to be so emotionally charged? And what’s the best way to handle these kinds of situations? To find out more, we asked Fiona Yassin, family psychotherapist and founder and clinical director of The Wave Clinic, to share her thoughts.
Why do sibling arguments feel so intense?
The intimacy and longevity of a sibling relationship means that arguments which come between that bond can feel even more intense than usual, Yassin explains.
“Sibling relationships are unique: siblings tend to have a very intimate relationship, which is one that is both verbal and non-verbal and has been created over many years,” Yassin says. “They also share many life experiences and perspectives – for example, witnessing parents argue –and often, there’s an unspoken language.
“It’s this intimacy in the sibling relationship that can make arguments or conflict as adults so painful. Suddenly, the unspoken union and deep bond between two people that, perhaps, we thought could never be broken, has been taken away.”
The amount of knowledge and insight each party has into the other person’s life can also transform arguments into more heated affairs, Yassin adds.
“As adults, sibling arguments tend to become much more pronounced because the parties have much more, often private or sensitive, information available to use as a weapon,” she says.
“This is when arguments can become toxic, damaging and ultimately more painful. Siblings may feel that many layers of trust, shared experiences and unison have been shattered.”
Yassin continues: “It can also be painful for a sibling to feel their parent is taking the side of the other sibling. Sibling arguments are quite often factored up to parents. If that parent chooses a position and takes a side – for example, if two brothers argue and the dad backs up one in particular – it can feel very hurtful.”
What is the best way to approach an argument with a sibling?
Arguments with a sibling are inevitably tough, but there are steps you can take to make things a little easier on the both of you and stop things from getting toxic, Yassin says.
1. Avoid repetitive arguments
“It’s really important to avoid repetitive arguments,” Yassin says. “It can be tempting to name-call and accuse and point the finger of blame by using statements such as, ‘you are…’, ‘you’ve made me feel…’ or, ‘you’ve caused…’. Instead, use ‘I’ statements such as, ‘I’m feeling…’, ‘I’m worried because…’. You are not inferring there is blame from the other and it’s a helpful way to diffuse a conflict.”
2. Don’t bring others into the argument
“No matter how tempting, do not bring other family members into the conflict,” Yassin advises. “Stay in the present and avoid weaponising information from the past. You may feel that you know your sibling inside out, but the reality is that you will never really know what the other person is thinking or experiencing and guessing someone else’s position can be dangerous.”
3. Be open, curious and honest
“Take time to enquire about what your sibling is thinking and feeling,” Yassin suggests. “If it feels like the argument is running away with you, slow it down. If the situation is heated, take the initiative to calmly step away. Say that you are upset and activated in that moment and what you would like to do is take yourself away.”
4. Give them space if necessary
“If you’ve had an argument with a sibling and it has not been resolved, do not bombard that person with messages or voice notes and do not ask a parent to speak to them on your behalf,” Yassin says. “Put it on ice, step back and ensure your sibling knows you are not avoiding the situation, but rather you don’t want to speak to them when you are angry and highly activated.”
5. Consult a family therapist if things can’t be resolved
“If sibling arguments are repetitive and do not resolve, it can impact on our ability to connect and trust in other relationships in life,” Yassin says. “Sibling relationships are really important so invest what you can into settling arguments and rebuilding healthy bonds.
“It’s really common for siblings to argue when one feels the other has been favoured throughout life and that can set up a sibling rivalry. It can be an underlying cause of arguments in teen, adolescent and adult life. If you feel there are unresolved problems from the past that relate to family dynamics, seek professional support.”