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Dear Family Whisperer: My Adult Children Still Fight!

05/22/2015 01:52 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2016
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Dear Family Whisperer,

I have two daughters aged 29 and 22, both beautiful. My younger one has adjustment problems, is highly sensitive and cannot handle changes. Recently, my elder one got married and the younger one created lot of issues by expressing displeasure and discontent with the situation. There was a party thrown, and in front of groom, she kept a frowning face and did not attend the party fully. Whereas at the same time, she was with her friends and was laughing and making merry. I am at loss how to turn this attitude into a positive.

- A sad mother

I've given advice to parents of babies and toddlers about how to prepare a child to be a "good" sibling and to a 13-year-old boy who thought his sister was getting too much attention. But your daughters are way past childhood! It's also hard to respond without knowing more about your family dynamics for the past 22 years or what you mean by "adjustment problems." Although the die is cast, these suggestions might help:

1. Don't view this as your younger daughter's "issue." To be sure, your older daughter's wedding might have opened old wounds in both girls' hearts -- and in yours as well. Often, one child becomes what family therapists call the "identified patient." However, other family members (children and parents) contribute to every situation. Even when you're not part of the conversation, your presence is there.

2. Imagine both girls as children. It helps to look back at other troubled times in your family and remember what your daughters were like and what they fought about. You might realize that what happened around the older one's wedding has happened before. When your younger daughter was frightened about a new situation or upset over a change, did you unwittingly "reward" her fearfulness with attention? Did you expect your older daughter to "be brave" or to take care of her little sister? Did she resent that responsibility or abuse her power?

3. One or both young women might be jealous of the other or still harboring childhood hurts. Assuming that there are no brothers in between the girls (whom you might not have mentioned), seven years is a large gap between children. Through the older one's teen years, your girls didn't have much in common. The older one might have had more privileges and freedoms. The younger one might have figured out how to steal the spotlight, perhaps in negative ways. Now in their twenties, both are young adults and might have more in common -- but that doesn't mean they're necessarily "closer."

4. You (and Dad, if he's still in the picture) need to ask, have I (we) been fair? In any family, there are limited resources. If time, money and energy is devoted mostly to one person, the others -- and their relationships -- suffer. Also assess whether you have adjusted our expectations over the years, asking more of one child and less of the other.

5. Sit down as a family and talk about the dynamics between your daughters. In many families, parents fall into the trap of making assumptions based on years of old behavior patterns ("Mary won't like this"). It's never too late to update and to strive for more "grown-up" interactions. Have you really given your younger daughter a chance to step up? She has friends -- a sign of social competence -- and seems to be capable of having a good time except when the spotlight shines on her older sister. Is she really as fragile as you describe? What role has your older daughter played in this drama?

To be sure, some siblings never get over their childhood dramas -- a situation that causes pain for the parents. But many do. One nationwide study of 7,700 adults reported that approximately 50% of adults see or talk with their sibling at least monthly." You can't "force" your daughters to love each other. You can only help clear the air and acknowledge your own part in their battles.

Hi, it's Melinda. I welcome your comments and suggestions. Do you have a question about your family or a relationship? No topics are off limits, and it's all anonymous. Ask via Twitter @MelindaBlau #DearFamilyWhisperer, or click on this link. You'll find a whole chapter about siblings in Family Whispering.