How parents should handle adult siblings falling out, like princes William and Harry

While parents of youngsters can often cajole them into making up after a fight, getting grown-ups to come together following an argument can be much more difficult

Prince William and Prince Harry have had a public falling out as older siblings. Getty Images
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The world continues to watch in amazement as two of the world's most famous siblings, Princes William and Harry, endure a public fallout.

While Prince William, 40, has stayed tight-lipped about the reasons behind the feud, Prince Harry, 38, has made revelations about his family in a Netflix documentary, as well as in his bestselling book, Spare, in which he talks candidly about the state of his relationship with his brother.

While parents of young children can often cajole little ones into making up after a fight with a few words of encouragement or a stern warning about consequences, getting adult siblings to come together following an argument can be much more difficult, given the arguments grown-ups have are vastly different.

Parents should not act as messengers between adult siblings. This can escalate the problem
Mohamad Naamani, clinical psychologist, Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai

As children grow, the main areas of conflict can include insecurity over comparing finances, status and achievement; caring for ageing parents; as well as different values and lifestyles. “Older siblings tend to fall out more over issues related to individual identity and preferences, and conflict in decisions and opinions related to important life decisions or family matters,” says Sonia Singhal, lead assessment specialist and counselling psychologist at Thrive Wellbeing Centre, Dubai.

“When it comes to older siblings who are in conflict, parents can try to be supportive and helpful, but unless both parties request their parents to intervene, it would be advised to let them resolve their issues by themselves,” says Singhal.

“If parents do get involved, the best approach in most situations might be to listen and validate both points of view, instead of taking sides or getting caught in the middle.”

When to step in, when to step back

“Older siblings are at a stage where they are capable of independently addressing their own problems in the way they find is suitable for them,” says Mohamad Naamani, clinical psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai. “Parents should encourage older siblings to resolve their own problems to promote their sense of autonomy. However, it is also important that parents provide emotional support for both siblings as fairly as possible.”

Help and support your adult children to have realistic expectations of sibling relationships
Dr Tara Wynn, clinical director, Lighthouse Arabia

Early intervention to avoid letting issues fester is the best course. Parents are also advised to acknowledge the gripes of both parties, instead of attempting to fix them.

“Parents should not act as messengers between adult siblings,” says Naamani. This can escalate the problem and further rupture the children's relationship with each other and with the parents as well.”

Allowing for space between siblings is advisable; however, experts suggest putting a time limit on siblings going without talking, to avoid the split from becoming permanent. “Letting the space become permanent can let adult siblings simply avoid their issues forever,” says Dr Tara Wynn, clinical psychologist and clinical director at Lighthouse Arabia. “The grudges and grievances can harden and calcify, and they can mistakenly assume they are better off or have no need for their sibling because they have learnt to live without them.”

Tips for parents to facilitate harmony

“When we are in a state of blame, we shut down and revert to black and white thinking,” says Denis Liam Murphy, author of The Blame Game: How to Recover from the World’s Oldest Addiction. “We look for the quick-fix rather than a big-picture solution. When we are out of blame, our default is curiosity, creativity and empathy. We then see in colour again where more doors of possibility are open.”

Wynn adds: “Give both parties a chance to name their grievance and also how they want the relationship to be and who they want to be in that relationship. Help and support your adult children to have realistic expectations and set healthy boundaries with their siblings.”

If mediation within the family unit hasn’t worked, parents should turn to outside help in the form of therapy to try and resolve issues.

“If adult siblings require therapy, the type of therapy will dictate who is involved,” says Wynn. “Typically, family therapy requires everyone to come together and then possibly see relevant units thereafter.

“Parents should make themselves available, but also peripheral if the focus should be on the siblings themselves.”

It's also important to note that adult sibling disagreements tend to start when they are still children. “The conflict typically derives from early-life sibling rivalries over parental preferences and favouritism,” says Wynn. “Adult siblings may still be vying for love, time and attention, and resultantly nurture resentments for inequalities that exist. Childhood roles and dynamics can be hard to shake, and siblings often rebel against those roles as adults.”

Consequently, it’s important for parents to understand that arguments or rivalries that begin in childhood may not automatically disappear when they are adults, making it important to address issues at any age.

Updated: February 25, 2023, 4:05 AM