My adult children are poisoning relationships in the family

The youngest sibling is getting married and wants all of us there

PROBLEM: I have four children, all adults. Two of them do not get on; they are always fighting and causing rows. They spread stories about each other and poison relationships in the family. Nowadays they barely talk to one another.

The youngest sibling is getting married and wants the whole family to be there. What am I going to do about these two misbehaving offspring? I have tried talking to them but, although they promise they are going to be better, it only lasts for a while before they lapse into old patterns of behaviour. They are both very competitive.

My wife died a number of years ago. She would have been better at handling the situation than I am. As bad as it was before, it has become much worse since she died.

Both these siblings have their own children, and I do not want to see this situation being passed on to the next generation. The grandchildren are still very young and are not yet affected, but I feel it is only a matter of time before their lives will be shaped by their parents’ bad behaviour.

ADVICE: You use very strong words in your letter, so you obviously deem the situation to be very difficult. You have spoken to the two of them, and they are able to hear some of what you have to say because they seem to make some effort for a while before lapsing into their old ways.

You are right to be concerned for the next generation, because this will surely affect their relationships with the other family and also with the overall extended family. It is very sad that you are facing this alone; your wife would have understood and talked it over with you, and perhaps together you might have fared better.

You say that both these offspring are very competitive. It sounds like a situation of sibling rivalry taken to an excessive level. Rather than not caring about each other, they seem to be highly conscious of each other’s position and of where they stand in terms of their “rating” in the family.

Perhaps they too are exhausted by this situation and are trying to find an answer, but they are stuck in patterns that perpetuate conflict and competition. The wedding of the youngest family member presents an opportunity, however, and it might offer some leverage in this situation.

You have tried to talk to them individually, and it might not be useful to go down this route again.

Could you call a family meeting about the wedding? You can decide whether partners should be invited or not. Having the partners there might offer possibilities if they can help to encourage a change of behaviour, but that is something you have to assess. The advantage of a family meeting is that the siblings might actually hear the effect their ongoing dispute is having on everyone.

It is important that the two protagonists are heard so that when plans are put in place they are based on what the true problems are rather than on the surface interpretations of them. It might be important to talk about your wife’s death and the effect this has had on everyone, and what influence she might have had were she alive.

The structure of this meeting needs to be organised by you as head of the family. You need to be clear about its purpose (to ensure a successful family wedding), timing and location. If there are no boundaries, it is likely that things will degenerate into blame and recrimination. Everyone needs to be heard, and some time slot assigned to each person; perhaps the youngest could keep charge of this aspect. You will need to show that each person has been understood by you. Perhaps you could summarise after everyone has finished. It would be great if everyone, including you, has things to do or achieve so that it is not only the two difficult people being targeted.

You will need to discuss what happens when old habits re-emerge and how these might be challenged early so that hopelessness does not sink in. Everyone will want the overall family to succeed, and you will need to keep everyone’s attention on this goal. Do not expect that one meeting will sort everything, but ask that everyone think about what has been suggested and agree to meet again.

You will need to hold the hope for success in this endeavour, as if you lose faith the others will find it difficult to keep the motivation going. Make sure you are supported by talking to a trusted friend so that you can discuss your misgivings without letting them take over in the family session.