outreach: sibling rivalry

The Brown family came to Outreach with their daughters, Jessica, 16, and Kayla, 14. “They never stop fighting, and we can’t live like this anymore!” complained Mr. and Mrs. Brown. They explained that the girls have never been close, bicker over everything, think the other sister is always getting something more or better, and complain to their parents often. One of the first things that their counselor, Christina Hostutler, did was to allow each girl time alone with her parents to vent about everything that was bothering her, including the harsh feelings the sisters have toward each other. This yielded valuable information about the way the family assigns roles and handles conflicts and fairness issues.

When the sisters compared themselves or got jealous, the parents often countered by pointing out what they did well. For example, Jessica was upset that her parents spent so much time at Kayla’s sporting events and seemed to brag about her winning swim meets. Her parents would respond by saying, “But you are our smart one; you bring home all the As.” Even though the Browns meant well, their comments actually were encouraging competition between their daughters. “When parents assign roles, even seemingly good ones, they are sending a message to their children that they are being judged and that their value lies in the outcome of their performance,” explains Hostutler. “No child should be able to corner the market in any one area.”

It became clear that Jessica and Kayla both wanted their parents to value their efforts at athletics and academics but could only get noticed in their assigned roles, which caused resentment. The family discussed the ways they had put themselves and each other into different roles, and worked on changing their language to recognize efforts and hard work at whatever they chose to do.

Mrs. Brown said most of her day seemed to be taken up by putting out fires and mediating squabbles between her daughters. She said the girls constantly came running to her about who got to watch what on TV or with complaints about taking things without asking, or tallying who has more jeans or the better backpack.

“Parents should get out of the habit of playing referee and trying to make everything equal,” responded Hostutler. She modeled for the parents how to restate each child’s feelings and perception of the problem and express confidence in the girls’ ability to come to a solution together and walk away. The Browns thought this would never work with their daughters. However, in the weeks to come they stuck diligently to this model and refused to get involved or take sides, and eventually the girls worked together to solve their issues.

*The Brown family represents typical Outreach clients. Details do not correspond with any specific case in order to protect client anonymity.

Outreach Teen & Family Services is a nonprofit, confidential counseling service. We offer counseling and educational programs to youth and parents that are affordable, accessible, and discreet; all within a welcoming, supportive environment.