Solutions for 10 Difficult Sibling Scenarios
Your Sibling Constantly Passes Judgment on Your Career or Your Kids
Just get over it? No. You don’t have to stand for it. By putting you down, he’s probably trying to make himself feel better.
What to do: “Be assertive, but not defensive,” says Peter Goldenthal, a family psychologist based in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and the author of Why Can’t We Get Along? Healing Adult Sibling Relationships ($12, amazon.com). Contain the urge to match his tone and rudeness. “You may not be able to change his behavior, but you can change the way you respond,” says Marcia Millman, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Tell him what you think, then “try disarming him by telling a joke or mentioning something about him that you genuinely admire,” she says. You can choose to act like an adult, even if he can’t.
Sample script: “Actually, I’m really happy with Jimmy’s choice of major. He should be able to find just as many job opportunities with an economics degree as you did with your business degree.”
Planning the Family Party or Buying the Group Gift Always Falls to You
Just get over it? Yes. You were the type-A kid, right? And siblings always looked on. They’re probably not lazy now. They’re just repeating those childhood roles.
What to do: Don’t do everything yourself. Give your siblings a chance to pitch in, and make them feel appreciated. “Your sibling probably needs to feel important,” says Goldenthal. “Some people need a lot of acknowledgment or flattery.”
Sample script: “I’m really going to need your help for this party. You have such a beautiful eye for design. Do you want to handle the invitations or the decorations?”
Your Sibling Always Thinks That He or She Is Right
Just get over it? Yes and no.
What to do: Try to laugh off her overbearing behavior with a quick quip. If she persists, wait until you’re not angry to tell her how you feel. Millman suggests explaining that you would like to have the mutual trust with her that you have with your friends, but you don’t feel she treats you as an equal, as they do. If she continues to be bossy, then make peace with yourself and feel good that you spoke your mind.
Sample script: “My best friends and I accept our differences and don’t try to change one another. I wish we could have that kind of relationship.”
Your Strapped-for-Cash Sibling Never Fails to Hit You Up for a Loan
Just get over it? No. Say something. He may have a problem with money management that needs to be fixed.
What to do: If this happens a lot, your sibling may actually benefit more if you say no to the loan. Try to find other ways to help: Recommend that he see a credit counselor, or help him create a budget. If you do decide to lend money, draft and cosign a document stating how much was lent, the date, and when the money will be returned.
Sample script: “I’m going to lend you this money, but I expect you to pay me back according to our agreement. And let’s make an appointment right now for you to see a credit counselor. I’ll come.”
Your Sibling Doesn’t Like Your Spouse
Just get over it? Maybe. You may never be able to make her love him, and, frankly, she doesn’t have to. She’s not married to him.
What to do: Ask yourself if your husband comes across as standoffish or rude. If the answer is yes, talk to him about it in a nonthreatening way. But if your sister is being petulant, ask her to accept him for the family’s sake. When you’re all together, try to be the diplomat. If all else fails, make plans alone with her.
Sample script: “This is the man I married, and I love him. I love you, too, so can you try to see it from my perspective?”
Family Gatherings Are Your Sibling’s One-(Wo)man Show, and You’re Not a Fan
Just get over it? Maybe. Her appetite for attention (and your family’s willingness to lavish it) might bother you because you want to be in the spotlight, too. As an adult, you have choices, from leaving the room to finding your moment to shine elsewhere.
What to do: If your sibling’s behavior really bugs you, see if another family member will intervene. If the family is part of the problem (they’ve always focused on her and acted as if you were invisible), tell them how you feel. If they can’t see your point or refuse to change, consider spending less time at family gatherings, especially if you’re not having any fun at them. “Don’t focus your life on old disappointments or resentments toward your siblings or parents,” says Millman. “Your life as an adult depends on finding attachments that make you happy in the present.”
Sample script: “I’d enjoy get-togethers more if we all had a chance to speak.”
Your Sibling Is Verbally Abusive
Just get over it? Definitely not. Sibling rivalry is normal. But abuse is never OK.
What to do: If your sibling’s comments are often mean-spirited, try to figure out why. “Sit down with him and ask, ‘Why are you behaving this way toward me? What’s the root of it? Why can’t we relate to each other as adults?’” says Vernon Wiehe, a social worker and the author of Sibling Abuse: Hidden Physical, Emotional, and Sexual Trauma ($70, amazon.com). If he responds childishly or seems set in his ways, consider distancing yourself. You can choose to avoid an abusive sibling and meet only at family gatherings. “You do what you would do in any other abusive relationship,” says Goldenthal. “Tell him you can’t spend time with him if he talks to you that way. Don’t invite him over. Don’t play victim. It’s important that you give very clear feedback.”
Sample script: “If you can’t treat me appropriately and respectfully, I’d rather not have anything to do with you. Let’s go our separate ways for a while.”
Your Sibling Is Extremely Competitive or Jealous
Just get over it? Yes. Children compete for a scarce resource: their parents’ attention. Some never feel as if they get enough.
What to do: Don’t respond to your sibling when she starts the “my stuff is better than yours” routine or brags about her son’s lead in the school play. Recognize that it’s competition and that your sibling may not change for years, if ever. Try to change the subject or ignore her bragging. If it gets to you, bring it up. But don’t expect an overnight transformation.
Sample script: “Your new car does sound great. Anyway, can you believe Ohio State pulled that one out on Saturday?”
Your Sibling’s Obnoxious Spouse Grates on Your Nerves
Just get over it? If you want to remain close to her, yes.
What to do: Try to understand what she sees in him, and be happy for her. Do not approach her with a “Why I hate Steve” laundry list, which will just offend her. “Anything you say will be seen as a judgment of her judgment,” says Millman. “What matters is if she’s in love with her partner and her partner loves her and makes her happy.” Grin and bear it, and arrange occasional outings alone with her to spare your gritted teeth. (The exception to this rule: If you suspect any kind of abuse, speak up.)
Sample script: “Do you think we can go holiday shopping alone today?”
Your Sibling Wants You to Keep a Secret From the Rest of Your Family
Just get over it? It depends. If it’s a serious issue or he could be hurting himself, you may have to break a confidence.
What to do: If you don’t feel comfortable keeping the secret, tell him that you can’t hold it forever, suggests Goldenthal. In the meantime, try to encourage your sibling to tell the family on his own.
Sample script: “I can give you a few months. But if the subject comes up, it will be tough for me to lie.”