08/17/2014 08:26 am ET Updated Oct 17, 2014

Sibling Rivalry: Does It Ever End?

Competition between brothers and sisters may cease once they grow up, or it may get worse. Is there anything parents can do to heal a rift? High50's Celia Dodd reports on keeping the family peace.

Even if our children fight like cats and dogs inside the nest, most parents hope that they'll get on when they leave it.

But as anyone who has a sibling knows, the reality is more complex. Unresolved conflicts may even gather momentum in adulthood. Siblings can push each other's buttons like no one else. In the saddest cases, siblings don't ever speak.

Siblings Who Don't Speak

Emma Dally, author of A Sister's Tale: a Family Memoir, is estranged from all but one of her five siblings, and blames the conflict largely on their mother's behaviour. "As an adult I became very aware of how much my mother used to divide and rule us, so I've always been very conscious of avoiding her mistakes with my own children," she says.

"She used to criticize each of us to another sibling, which stirred up all sorts of trouble because it made one child feel important by belittling the other.

"And she had favorites. Looking back I can see that I was a favorite -- although I certainly didn't feel like one! -- and that my sister and brothers resented me for it.

"Everything came to a head after we left home. We fought even harder for my mother's attention and approval, so the resentment carried on building up.

"My mother still insisted on weekly family dinners, often at home, which in a way forced us to stay in our childhood roles. Alcohol only made things worse at these occasions, because it made people more aggressive."

Mistakes Parents Make

It's easy for parents to think that we wouldn't make those mistakes ourselves, that we know better than to have favorites or make comparisons. But our children may have a rather different view.

I'm often shocked when my kids hark back to some glaring example of historic unfairness that totally passed me by at the time. In the throes of family life parents can't always see how their behavior is affecting their kids. And it has to be harder to be fair with stepchildren.

Encourage Sibling Contact

So what can parents do to encourage harmony once their children are beyond their immediate influence? And is it possible to undo the mistakes of the past?

There's certainly hope: studies show that sibling relationships can change dramatically over the years.

Emma Dally was determined to avoid her mother's mistakes with her own three daughters. "My experience taught me how important it is to get things out in the open," she says, "and I've always encouraged the girls to air their grievances.

"When they were younger my middle and youngest daughters didn't get on at all. But when their elder sister went to college they resolved things and now that all three have left home they get on really well."

One way to nurture communication is simply by doing stuff together. The family therapist Jan Parker, co-author of Raising Happy Brothers and Sisters, explains: "If parents want to encourage communication and supportive relationships between our children, we should support direct communication and shared events and activities throughout their lives."

This doesn't mean pressuring everyone to get together, but allowing children to instigate events themselves, either with or without their siblings.

Have No Favorite Child

Recent trends in family life can make it harder for parents to be fair: one child needs help financing a further degree, or to pay their rent, another child moves back home.

Treating siblings equally and avoiding having a favorite child becomes almost impossible. One mother says: "Annabel often complains her brother gets more money than her, although their circumstances are completely different.

"I'm very conscious that when she comes home from college she's watching me to see how I behave towards him; I can tell she feels resentful. Because he's been back at home for months we share so much daily life, and it's almost inevitable that she feels left out."

Observational studies have shown that babies as young as a year are conscious of differences in the way their parents treat them, and clearly this never ends.

Don't (Always) Blame The Parents

If your children enjoy each other's company it's bound to give parents a warm glow. But don't assume it's your fault if they don't. All sorts of other factors create conflict: personality differences, genes, a new partner in the mix, experiences outside the family.

In any case their relationship is likely to mellow with time. In one study of siblings at all stages of life, 68 per cent felt close or 'extremely' close to their siblings by middle age, while only five per cent did not feel at all close.

Jan Parker explains: "Siblings very often reconnect and value the importance of each other as they get older because their siblings are the only people who have known their life path from the earliest stages.

"Even relationships which have been marred by jealousies and misunderstandings in earlier life tend to grow in significance and mutual support."

Sibling Relationship Tips: How To Avoid The Mistakes Parents Make

• Don't have a favorite child. If you get on better with one of your kids, try not to show it.

• Be wary of responding only to the child who makes the loudest demands. Kids who don't make a fuss may need attention too.

• Avoid comparisons. "Why can't you be more like your brother?" is asking for trouble, but more subtle comparisons can be just as hurtful.

• Appreciate the differences between your children.

• Balance out the attention/money/support you give as equally as you can.

• Don't always hold family gatherings at home. On neutral ground it's easier for siblings to see each other as individuals with lives beyond the family.

• Finally, don't force the issue. Accept that your children may not get on all the time.

Related Articles

Living with Your Adult Kids

How To Have A Happy Marriage

See All Life Stories

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

What Do You Miss About Your Children Now That They're Adults?