How to Deal with Difficult Siblings

Frank HeckersFrank HeckersBrothers and sisters can still get your goat -- especially at holiday time. Learn how to play nice, adult-style

The Problem: Your sibling constantly passes judgment on your career or your kids.

Just Get Over It? No. You don't have to stand for it. By putting you down, he's probably trying to make himself feel better.
What to Do: "Be assertive, but not defensive," says Peter Goldenthal, a family psychologist based in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and the author of Why Can't We Get Along? Healing Adult Sibling Relationships (Wiley, $15, www.amazon.com). Contain the urge to match his tone and rudeness. "You may not be able to change his behavior, but you can change the way you respond," says Marcia Millman, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Tell him what you think, then "try disarming him by telling a joke or mentioning something about him that you genuinely admire," she says. You can choose to act like an adult, even if he can't.
Sample Script: "Actually, I'm really happy with Jimmy's choice of major. He should be able to find just as many job opportunities with an economics degree as you did with your business degree."

The Problem: Planning the family party or buying the group gift always falls to you.

Just Get Over It? Yes. You were the type A kid, right? And siblings always looked on. They're probably not lazy now. They're just repeating those childhood roles.
What to Do: Don't do everything yourself. Give your siblings a chance to pitch in, and make them feel appreciated. "Your sibling probably needs to feel important," says Goldenthal. "Some people need a lot of acknowledgment or flattery."
Sample Script: "I'm really going to need your help for this party. You have such a beautiful eye for design. Do you want to handle the invitations or the decorations?"

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The Problem: Your sister's obnoxious husband grates on your nerves.

Just Get Over It? If you want to remain close to her, yes.
What to Do: Try to understand what she sees in him, and be happy for her. Do not approach her with a "Why I hate Steve" laundry list, which will just offend her. "Anything you say will be seen as a judgment of her judgment," says Millman. "What matters is if she's in love with her partner and her partner loves her and makes her happy." Grin and bear it, and arrange occasional outings alone with her to spare your gritted teeth. (The exception to this rule: If you suspect any kind of abuse, speak up.)
Sample Script: "Do you think we can go holiday shopping alone today?"

The Problem: Your sister always thinks that she's right.

Just Get Over It? Yes and no.
What to Do: Try to laugh off her overbearing behavior with a quick quip. If she persists, wait until you're not angry to tell her how you feel. Marcia Millman, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, suggests explaining that you would like to have the mutual trust with her that you have with your friends, but you don't feel she treats you as an equal, as they do. If she continues to be bossy, then make peace with yourself and feel good that you spoke your mind.
Sample Script: "My best friends and I accept our differences and don't try to change one another. I wish we could have that kind of relationship."

See Real Simple's 10 Things to Keep the Peace

The Problem: Your strapped-for-cash sibling never fails to hit you up for a loan.

Just Get Over It? No. Say something. He may have a problem with money management that needs to be fixed.
What to Do: If this happens a lot, your sibling may actually benefit more if you say no to the loan. Try to find other ways to help: Recommend that he see a credit counselor, or help him create a budget. If you do decide to lend money, draft and cosign a document stating how much was lent, the date, and when the money will be returned.
Sample Script: "I'm going to lend you this money, but I expect you to pay me back according to our agreement. And let's make an appointment right now for you to see a credit counselor. I'll come."

The Problem: Your sibling wants you to keep a secret from the rest of your family.

Just Get Over It? It depends. If it's a serious issue or he could be hurting himself, you may have to break a confidence.
What to Do: If you don't feel completely comfortable keeping the secret, tell him that you can't hold it forever, suggests Peter Goldenthal, a family psychologist based in Wayne, Pennsylvania. In the meantime, try to encourage your sibling to tell the family on his own.
Sample Script: "I can give you a few months. But if the subject comes up, it will be tough for me to lie."

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