Have Trouble Dealing With a Difficult Sibling? We Asked an Expert for Advice

When you're dealing with a difficult personality at school, being able to come home and get away from it all can feel like a safe haven.

But things aren't so simple when the most challenging person in your life is a sibling. That relationship can be complex even when things are good. When they're not good, you may not know where to turn.

That's why we reached out to sibling relationship expert Elizbeth Verdick. She's the author of a number of advice books, including Siblings: You're Stuck With Each Other, So Stick Together, and we got to ask her our most burning questions about how to handle a challenging brother or sister.

Sweety High: What makes relationships between siblings so complicated?

Elizabeth Verdick: The dynamic is complex—sometimes love-hate. You know each other's secrets and pasts, and you know what buttons to push to drive each other crazy. You may fight hard, and then make up only to start up the fight again later, and then, the two of you collapse into laughter because the fight was so stupid and you can't believe you both acted that way.

Sibling relationships also contain power dynamics, which makes everything all the more confusing. Maybe the older sibling, or whoever is physically stronger, has more power. Maybe you have "dirt" on each other, which keeps the balance of power shifting from one of you to the other. To make everything even more confusing, you feel like you're in competition with each other for your parents' love and attention.

On a certain level, you and your sibling trust each other. You have each other's backs. You look out for each other's health and safety, maybe even when you're still picking on each other or playing silly pranks. It's a relationship that goes back far into the past and will go on far into the future. That's why sibling relationships are so strong and yet so frustrating! Your sibling is always just there. You may even share a room. So, it makes sense for the two of you to develop some strategies for conflict resolution.


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SH: When a sibling is being particularly difficult, when does it make sense to engage them, and when should we step away from the situation? 

EV: It's not always easy to determine when you need to get someone else involved. Can you find a way to talk to each other without yelling, slamming doors or stomping off? If so, "I" messages can help. Try saying things like, "I feel angry when you borrow my stuff without asking,"starting with the word "I" and stating your feelings in a calm voice. This works better than shouting, "You steal my stuff all the time, you thief!"

"I" messages are a way to engage each other in a healthy manner. You talk things out instead of bottling up feelings and exploding at each other later. But maybe such talks aren't even possible because the relationship isn't healthy and hasn't been for a long time. If this happens, you'll need an adult to help you do some damage control—and it needs to be someone you both trust, and someone who can help the two of you resolve conflicts and figure out patterns that hurt the relationship. It's important to get back to trusting and respecting each other because you share a home. After all, you can only avoid each other for so long.


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SH: When the behavior of an older sibling starts feeling toxic, how can a younger sibling respond? 

EV: That is a huge challenge, and it's one that a younger sibling likely can't handle all on their own. Maybe your sibling is taking dangerous risks by bullying or invading your privacy, or they're somehow poisoning the relationship the two of you have. In such a case, it's time to seek some sort of adult help. Know that you don't have to face this alone and that help is out there—not just for you but for your sibling, too. If they're doing things that hurt themself, you, or others, then please seek help, whether it's at home, at school, or in your community.

Maybe you can talk to your parents or other adult relatives, such as an aunt, uncle, or grandparent. Maybe you can reach out to a teacher or school counselor. Perhaps you can tell your doctor or a religious leader you trust. Someone older than you is needed, especially if your sibling's behavior is a repeated pattern and is affecting your safety and health. If the first adult you go to isn't as responsive as you hoped, then try someone else. Don't give up trying until you get the help that's needed.

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(Stranger Things via Netflix)


SH: What else is it important to consider in these situations?

EV: Everyone should be aware that they are not responsible for their siblings' behaviors. As a sibling, it's normal to want to protect your brother or sister, to make sure they're doing okay and not getting into trouble, but you can only do so much.

You can only be responsible for yourself. You're in charge of your own behaviors. In life, you're going to make choices and mistakes, and so is your sibling. You can be there to try to catch someone when they fall, but you can't control that person's every choice and behavior, no matter how much you love them. The truth is, preteens and teens still need adults to be the ones in charge at home. That doesn't mean you can't strive to be responsible and can't make choices on your own—you can, and it's part of growing up. But if your sibling is putting anyone in danger or is making your life miserable, it's time to talk to an adult who can help manage the situation and keep you safe.

When you're dealing with them one-to-one, if you're working hard to stay calm, be respectful, respect boundaries, and improve the relationship, that's great! It takes maturity to do all those things and to take the high road by being the one who tries to approach conflict in positive, healthy ways.

Want to know what never works? Anger, threats, physical attacks, stealth attacks, accusations and blame. These behaviors happen, but they always make a relationship worse. The goal isn't necessarily to "win" every argument. It's about finding ways to stay connected even when you disagree. It takes maturity to admit mistakes and apologize. And it takes two to keep the relationship healthy.


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SH: Why do you think we should avoid labeling people as toxic?

EV: I think it's risky to describe someone as having a toxic personality. What is that person doing that feels poisonous? I'd encourage readers to think of very specific behaviors that the person is doing so that the behaviors themselves can be addressed. For example, is your sister gossiping about you? Does your brother lie to you? Do your siblings leave shared spaces messy or go through your personal items without asking first? Addressing those particular behaviors could help strengthen the relationship and regain a sense of trust.

Another idea is to help them see what positive things the sibling does, if any. Sometimes, in any relationship, we have to remind ourselves to look hard to see the positives because it's all too easy to always focus on the negatives. One other thing—if a person does seem constantly negative, that's a concern. So, if your sibling, for example, seems chronically angry, upset, sad, and tired, there could be something going on. If your sibling's eating and sleeping habits have changed, or if the person seems unfocused and isolated, a checkup might be needed. Sometimes, there's an underlying health issue that is causing a change in behavior.



Being overshadowed? Click HERE for Elizabeth Verdick's advice on how to deal with a sibling's reputation at school.