Today we’re going to hear from a dad who is worried that his son is angry with his daughter, who had an eating disorder. Sibling rivalry is normal and expected throughout life, but it’s definitely something to pay attention to during an eating disorder crisis and recovery.
A year ago, I would have been writing to you about my daughter, who was almost hospitalized with an eating disorder. But right now, the issue is my son. During the crisis of handling her eating disorder, he seemed fine and was actually really helpful.
But lately, he’s been acting out a lot, yelling at her and telling her that he doesn’t want anything to do with her. He ignores her, yells at her, and generally shuts her out. She’s no angel and does the same right back to him.
I’m heartbroken because they used to be so close. We put all our energy into fighting the eating disorder, and that seems to be on the right track now, but what do I do about the sibling rivalry? How do I help my son love his sister again?
Hi Luis, I’m so glad you reached out. So many times, when one kid has an eating disorder, sibling rivalry arises. During the crisis, everyone in the family organizes around helping the person in the most trouble, but this can mean that other family members can feel left out.
This happens a lot, and it’s a natural part of going through an eating disorder and recovery. The best thing is that you’re paying attention and seeing that your son needs some help.
Most times, there is a sort of long-tail of recovery. Think of a comet. There’s the big burst, but then there’s a long tail that extends many times the length of the burst itself. This is why they say recovery is a process, not an event.
It sounds like you handled the burst of the eating disorder, but now you’re in the tail looking at some unresolved sibling rivalry.
His behavior is communication
I think we can understand your son’s behavior. As much as he loves everyone, he’s a teenage boy whose life was majorly disrupted by things out of his control. This isn’t normal sibling rivalry – it’s related to the eating disorder.
There is nothing wrong with how you handled things in the past. You had to do what you did. But there’s also nothing wrong with him having feelings about it.
In fact, I’m glad he’s showing you his feelings, and I’m especially glad that you can see this is probably connected to the disruption of the eating disorder rather than so-called normal teenage sibling behavior or some sign of poor character.
The fact that you recognize his aggressive behavior towards his sister is probably linked to the eating disorder tells me that you’re paying attention, and I’m so glad.
Let him have his feelings
I’d like you to start with how you respond to him when he is frustrated with his sister. Most of us automatically ask our kids not to be mad at each other.
And while this makes sense, while we want to set boundaries around rude and inappropriate behavior, we don’t want to shut down feelings.
If you’re alone with him and he says something negative about his sister, try saying something like, “it sounds like you’re really upset right now,” and then give him space to talk about it.
Don’t give advice or tell him what to think. Don’t make excuses, however valid, for her eating disorder. Instead, use mirroring to repeat back what he’s trying to tell you. This will help him process his feelings in the comfort of your love and acceptance.
His feelings are normal and make sense. He gets to feel them. And the more he’s allowed to feel them and talk to you about how he feels, the less he’ll feel as if he needs to antagonize her to show you how upset he is.
If he says something rude in front of you to his sister, then say kindly, “it seems like you’re upset, and we can talk about that, but please don’t talk to your sister like that.”
Then follow up with him later using the mirroring technique I mentioned.
This probably doesn’t need to be said, but you should do the same with your daughter. If she says something rude, you can kindly and calmly validate her feelings while setting a boundary for interpersonal behavior.
So that’s how you respond when he gets upset with her, but now let’s talk about all the ways you can reduce his anger with her by connecting with him and building family belonging.
First, find ways to intentionally pay attention to him every day.
Whenever you see him, make brief eye contact and smile when you say hello. Take a minute or two to connect with him. Avoid translating the word “connect” to the word “question,” “praise,” or “give advice.”
These translations are really common for parents, and they can get in the way of true connection. Find ways to listen way more than you talk. Let your son be the expert on his life, and you be the interested witness.
Side by side
If you want to do a bit more, then try going for drives together. Cars are a great place to connect with teens, partly because you’re side by side, so they feel physically close to you but aren’t threatened by direct eye contact.
The other benefit of being in a car is that your teen knows it will be over soon. You’d be amazed by how often teens say important and vulnerable things 3 minutes before you get to your destination.
Let them do this. If they want to keep talking when you park, fine. But don’t force it. Part of the magic of the car is that they trust the conversation will end if they want it to.
Now this will only work if you set a family rule that people sitting in the car should not use their phones. This needs to apply to everyone – teens and adults. Don’t let the car be a place where everyone goes to their separate corners and interacts with people who are not in the car. Cars are an amazing opportunity to connect if you take advantage of them.
Hobbies and passions
Another way to connect is through your son’s hobbies like video games, sound design, or shooting hoops in your driveway. Try to join him for very brief periods of time. Say something like, “I have five minutes. Would you mind showing me how you did that last thing you did?”
It’s a good idea to start very small and make it time-constrained. You’re just showing him that you’re interested in who he is, but you don’t want to disrupt his happy place. It’s a balance. I trust you can find it.
OK, so while you’re working on connecting one on one with him, I also want you to start working on family belonging.
Your family has been through a lot, so you want to do a bit of a reset and focus on how you can connect with each other as a group. Just like all groups of people, families are built on values, boundaries, and traditions.
Let’s start with values. Since you have a history of an eating disorder in the family, an important family value I’d suggest is “we talk about hard things.”
Eating disorders love the shadows. They thrive in shame and secrecy. So it’s important that the family starts openly discussing the topics that are often avoided because they are hard and uncomfortable to talk about.
For example, when I said you should consider a no-cell-phone rule in the car, did you immediately dismiss that suggestion because it would be too hard?
That’s avoidance. You don’t have to agree with my suggestion, but if you’re dismissing it automatically because it seems too hard and would upset your kids, then consider other ways in which you avoid things because they might upset your kids and bring the conflict to the surface.
Talk about hard things
If your value is that we’re going to talk about hard things, that means setting boundaries even when it creates conflict and the kids hate it.
For example, another value is treating each other with respect, which means setting boundaries around name-calling, blaming, criticizing, swearing, and yelling at each other.
You can’t make your son love his sister or vice versa, but you can set boundaries around respectful behavior, which is a prerequisite for loving someone.
Of course, our kids get to feel upset, but there’s a difference between feeling upset and acting it out on each other.
Your kids get to feel angry and annoyed by each other. They get to feel their feelings, but there should be boundaries about how they process those feelings. I don’t want kids to repress feelings – remember, we want to talk about hard things – but there’s a big space between repression and explosion.
Rather than swinging between the extremes, find space in the middle ground in which everyone gets to have their feelings, but there are appropriate boundaries about how we treat each other, even in moments of anger.
Finally, take a look at your family traditions. Traditions are so important because they build belonging. You can’t make your son love his sister, but you can build belonging, which is the space where your son is most likely to feel love for his sister.
Traditions require us to share time, energy, and attention together.
Start with very simple daily traditions. Does your family gather together in the same room, without phones and other distractions, at least once per day?
Family meals are a great family tradition. If you can’t make dinner work, can you swing breakfast, a snack, or dessert every day? What you’re showing your kids when you commit to a family tradition is that belonging matters to you. It’s a high priority.
Once you have a daily family tradition, you can branch out and strengthen other family traditions like the occasional hike or movie outing or whatever you like to do together.
Then, of course, you have holidays and vacations. And these large events will be so much better if the family has other daily and monthly traditions that have built a sense of belonging and true connection.
Keep it up!
Luis, I know you already have a lot on your plate. You’ve done a great job so far, and now it’s just a matter of helping your son feel better and build family connections and belonging.
Sibling rivalry is no joke, and while we can’t control it or eliminate it, we can reduce it by building one-on-one and family connections.
You’re in a new stage of parenting, and you probably only have a few years left to make a big difference in how your family will operate for decades to come. Good luck!
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