Dear Mr. Dad: My two teenagers are constantly at each other’s throat. When they were little, our daughter (now 15) and our son (now 13) were best friends. But it seems like ever since they became actual teenagers, it’s been painful to be around them. My wife and I treat them as equally as we can and we try to stay out of the middle. But it’s hard. Is there any way to make them get along better?
The teen years can be incredibly challenging—for the teens themselves and the adults under whose roof they live. There’s developing sexuality, peer pressure, growing responsibilities at home and school, and the discomfort of no longer being a child, but not being old enough to be independent or make their own decisions. At the same time, there’s a tremendous surge of psychological and emotional growth. With all that going on, it’s amazing that their (and our) heads don’t explode.
As the older sibling, your daughter may be feeling burdened with responsibility for her brother, even if you’ve asked her only to keep an eye on him or to make sure she’s home before he gets back from school. She may see him as an obstacle to her freedom or an impediment to her ability to socialize or participate in weekend- or after-school activities. Your son, on the other hand, may resent being “babysat” by a sister whom he perceives as having all the freedom in the world and none of the restrictions.
Although you and your wife are trying to treat your kids equally, there’s really no such thing. Each of them has different abilities and needs. Your son may feel that his sister gets many more privileges and is treated like an adult, and she may feel that you treat her brother more gently and are more tolerant of his bad behavior.
Fortunately, this phase won’t last too long. In the meantime, here are a few strategies that should make things a little easier for everyone.
• Accept that “being fair” isn’t always possible.
While your son may complain that his sister gets to stay up (or out) later, the fact is that he probably needs more sleep than she does, and her age has earned her privileges that he’ll get to enjoy later on.
Sibling rivalry often develops when one child feels that he or she isn’t valued as much as a sibling. Say that you love sports and that while one of your children is a star athlete, the other works on the school newspaper, plays in the band, or belongs to the coding club. If you’re not giving that child as much support and encouragement as your sports star, the non-athlete may feel inadequate and as though he or she is competing for a limited commodity: your love.
• Let them resolve their differences, but know when to step in.
As with adults, stress, fatigue, depression, and anger can make kids lash out at those closest to them. Encourage them to talk through their feelings and work things out on their own. However, you’ll need to intervene if one child is being terrorized or picked on relentlessly by the other.
• Encourage love and forgiveness.
Letting both children know that you understand and respect their feelings will help them to let go of their anger and resentment. Often, a simple apology between feuding teens is enough to remind them that the love and bond they share are stronger than the rivalries they occasionally feel.
• Set a good example.
Don’t underestimate your role as parents to set the tone for family harmony. That doesn’t mean you should never argue or express anger or resentment. But it does mean seeking solutions when disagreements arise, and treating each another with compassion and respect.
Originally published on Mr. Dad