by Jane Adams Ph.D.

Sibling rivalry may be the obvious reason, but it’s not the only one.


  • The ties that bind siblings can also fray or even disintegrate, but what parents can do about it is limited.
  • If all that siblings have in common is their parents, that may not be enough to matter once we’re gone.
  • There’s a difference between treating kids fairly and treating them equally, and they know it.

It’s not always sibling rivalry. Says Carla: “They’re too unalike in temperament, values, and interests to have anything in common, and they’ve been that way since they were small.”

Maya muses that maybe it started after the divorce, when the eldest entered preschool and she bought the younger one a toy to calm his distress at being left behind. Anita explains the friction between her grown sons this way: “They’re from two different worlds. In one, every stranger is a potential threat, and in the other it’s just a friend they haven’t met yet.”

Related: Do Some Parents Treat Adult Children Like Kids?

The differences between Carla’s sons Michael and Tom range from their temperament to their politics: One’s a law-and-order type, a former MP in the military, and the other a libertarian with little use for convention and a preference for doing his own thing, like running the marijuana dispensaries that have made him a rich man. Their wives are friends in their own way but have mostly given up trying to change the dynamic between the brothers.

After a family vacation in a house Carla rented in Hawaii for the entire clan, including their four kids, Tom announced that was the last time he’d go anywhere with Michael. The kids can’t understand; the cousins adore each other, and unless their mothers arrange a play date, they rarely get to be together.

Carla is sure that at some level it’s her fault, so she hasn’t stopped trying to make them see each other’s point of view. “Sometimes I worry that after I die they’ll never see each other again.”

The fact is that some siblings, like Carla’s sons, have only a blood connection, and that may not be enough to keep from fraying or even disintegrating the ties their parents hope will bind them.

In my experience, sisters who are close in age are more likely to act out sibling rivalry as adults; I still (shamefully) remember the fight I had with my sister over my mother’s most personal belongings after her death. We regressed so far back to childhood that we actually got physical about it—not hair-pulling, but close enough for my wise aunt to remind us both that they were just things we were squabbling over, not which of us had a stronger claim to our mother’s love. Which is, of course, the source of sibling rivalry.

There’s substance to the cliché that the worst day of an only child’s life is the day Mom brings the new baby home. That’s a narcissistic injury that lurks in the unconscious until something triggers the memory of it later in life. There’s very little we can do about it as parents (and, of course, as adult siblings) except be sensitive to it when it’s acted out in our presence, and focus on the qualities and characteristics that make our kids individually and uniquely dear to us.

The other thing we can do is be honest with ourselves, if not them, about the truth that we may love them differently rather than equally, while taking pains to insure that we treat them fairly. That may mean giving one who needs it more help or money than one who doesn’t, while making that clear to both, or accounting for it in our estate. Meanwhile, we can hope that once we’re gone, they’ll come to appreciate each other and who loved who more won’t matter in the same way it does now.

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