Parents are always telling their kids to get along with one another. But increasingly, therapists say, the adults need someone to do the same for them.
Call it sib strain--when juvenile jealousies, childhood squabbles or long-forgotten insults--can erupt into disa greements, verbal battles or even all-out hostility between adult siblings.
"People are realizing that the sibling relationship is important, especially in this crazy society. I deal with it every day with my patients," said Barbara Cadow, a USC clinical psychologist with a private practice in Westwood.
Therapists say the seeds of sibling stress are sown in childhood when parents model ineffective communication styles or allow rivalries to go unchecked. Almost without exception, those who suffer from sibling feuds have grown up in families in which successive generations have failed to learn how to talk to each other and listen, Cadow said. The result, sometimes long after everyone is officially grown up, is angry siblings.
The problem is usually triggered by stress--a wedding, a holiday, an illness, a funeral or a will. "People are raw emotionally and then the issues come out," said Cadow, who recently counseled two sisters wrangling over a will.
Sibling therapy is a lot like marriage counseling--except both patients have the same parents, Cadow said. In the case of the two sisters, both had long felt deprived of love, attention and reinforcement, and learned that they were holding each other responsible.
"It worked out, in a very emotional session. They both realized that neither of them had gotten what they felt they needed," Cadow said. And they stopped fighting over the will.
A 73-year-old Northridge woman who asked to remain anonymous said she has still not resolved completely the tension she feels with her three siblings. "I grew up and was put in a little category; I had the label of being bright, and my younger sister had the label of being pretty, with personality, dimples and all that," she said.
Ten years ago, at the wedding reception for her second marriage, one of her brothers turned to her and said he had never noticed that she was so beautiful. She bristled. "I told him, right then, that I didn't think any of them had ever looked at me," she said. "He was shocked."
Sometimes, Westwood-based psychologist Arlen Ring said, one of the kids gets the feeling the other sibling's role came easier. "One sibling may have been the rebel and the other, a good little girl. Neither appreciates the price the other had to pay for refuge," he said.
He sees a growing number of people seeking sibling-related therapy. Usually, some occasion becomes a flash point and a fight ensues. "For some, it's like a bomb waiting to go off," he said. Money is a big issue around which things break, as are celebrations.
In many cases, Ring said, the siblings discover that they grew up in a dysfunctional family in which the parents had so many unmet needs that they were not able to provide a forum for the family to communicate. Rather than feeling like everyone was working together and on the same side, children in such situations may have grown up seeing each other as players who would move against each other if given an opening.
"We all model the kind of behaviors we've primarily been exposed to," said Barry Slone, a clinical psychologist with offices in Orange and Laguna Hills. "If you assume the parental relationship is one of the more powerful educational experiences, I don't think it's a stretch to draw the conclusion that if you grew up in a family where people could express their point of view, negotiate and constructively solve problems, you're going to have a better relationship with your sibling."
David Paster, an Encino psychologist, uses the acronym RAGE--rivalry, anger, greed and envy--to explain the sibling stress he sees among the adults he treats. He says the combination of those four emotions creates the tension that is increasingly being experienced among grown siblings.
It's common, Paster said, for adult siblings to remember something said decades ago. One client recently told his brother that he cannot forget that, at 14, he told him that he would hate him for the rest of his life. The issues, Paster said, are often not even remembered by the other sibling or may be recalled very differently.
Sometimes memory is selective. One woman clearly remembers her brother tying her to a piano bench with a jump rope when she was 8. What she does not recall is why he did it.
Issues can spring up deep into adulthood. Cheryl Heitman, a family therapist in Agoura, said she often sees sibs who have gotten along well, even into their 30s and 40s, until some problem opens an old, even unremembered, rift.
"You're reacting from old feelings, feelings from when you were 5, and then you revert to those deep, familiar behavior patterns," she said.
Heitman said she also has counseled adults who found that issues with their siblings were getting worse as they all aged, without any particular event or crisis as a cause.
"A lot of people, as they get older, instead of their issues getting resolved, it gets worse. We all have expectations of how we ought to be treated and we have these expectations even more for family. So it's very easy to be left out, disappointed or frustrated. And most families don't make it a habit to talk about the dynamics of their relationships," Heitman said.
Sometimes the precipitating factor is a sibling's spouse. Cadow said one patient she has counseled was extremely close to her brother but saw the relationship slide after he got married. "The wife tried to keep the brother away from his sister; she practiced phone sabotage," Cadow said.
Why? "It's hardly ever communicated in these situations so it's hard to know what it's about," she said.
Making up isn't easy. Cadow remembered one patient who had problems with all his siblings but carefully selected the one with whom he was closest. He planned out what he would say, how he would begin the conversation and phoned. The brother hung up on him.
"You need to be prepared for an overture to fail," Cadow said. The best bet, she advised, is for troubled sibs to try to talk in a neutral, public place--such as a restaurant--where inhibitions may make the discussion more calm and controlled.
Cadow suggests that sibs start by reminiscing--sharing silly stories in an effort to regain common ground. Keep it low-key, go slowly, don't blame and don't go in with huge expectations. "Be happy if you can meet and not fight," she said.
Psychologists say just having children of their own sometimes spurs siblings to seek therapy. Watching the kids interact can resurrect long-buried, conflicting feelings of both fun and frustration, and stimulate a desire for the new generation of children to do better.
How can parents nip sib strain in the bud? Paster said parents should be careful not to assume that sibling rage is normal. "It's not," he said. "Kids should be encouraged to talk about their feelings with each other and to treat each other well."
Slone said parents should feel comfortable stepping into the situation when they see their children at each other's throats. The theory that the grown-ups should let the kids work it out themselves usually does not work, he said.
"Adults can help the siblings calm down," he said, "and then assist them in expressing why they are fighting and what they want."