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‘My teenage sons refuse to engage with each other with any civility’

Ask the Expert: The boys used to get along but that stopped years ago


My husband and I have two teenage boys in secondary school. They are both very polite and kind young men in general company. They have good circles of friends and their teachers seem to like them. The problem is that they refuse to engage with each other with any civility.

The older son hates drawing attention, and his younger brother seems to be a source of potential embarrassment at school and of general anxiety. He dislikes his younger brother’s long hair. Despite our constant efforts to stop him, he tries to “parent” his younger brother by pointing out his messy bedroom, for instance.

Our younger son used to worship his older brother but now seems to always want to draw blood first, so even if his older brother is occasionally nice to him he responds very rudely.

They used to be such good company for each other, and we feel it’s important they have a healthy relationship for whatever challenges the future may hold. We’ve reached a point where they refuse to be in the same room as each other, and outings and holidays have become very difficult to plan. Outside of our home, our family cannot imagine how they behave with each other. We have tried to find a common “cause” for them to unite; we have tried to talk to them together and separately about how this is impacting our family life. We feel we have run out of resources to find a solution and are considering taking them for family counselling, but as you might expect they are objecting. We realise that siblings often go through rocky patches with each other, but this has been ongoing for at least three years and there is no sign of improvement.



One of the greatest satisfactions as a parent is to see your children getting on well and looking after each other as they grow up. This gives you a real sense of an enduring legacy that your children will be there for each other in the future and that your job is done well as a parent. As a result, the reverse is very distressing. Though a common problem, seeing your children fighting and having a poor relationship especially when it is ongoing is very upsetting as a parent. While ultimately they have to work out their own relationship, there are things you can do as a parent to help your two boys

Don’t take a side in their disputes

When you witness your teenagers in conflict, the temptation can be to jump in and try to fix things. Usually parents try to assess who is at fault and then try to correct the child at fault (usually but not always the elder child). The problem with this “judging” or refereeing approach is that it usually continues the conflict and increases resentment. Reading between the lines, I suspect you might have inadvertently taken the side of your younger son and criticised his older brother for “being embarrassed” by his brother or “not liking his hair” or trying to “parent him”. This is likely to have increased your older son’s resentment and even lead him to believe that his brother is your favourite. Though your younger son may have started out as “worshipping” his brother, this can be eroded by ongoing criticism leading to him being hurt and hitting out.

Empathically understand both your sons

The key to helping your sons get on better is to never judge or take a side and instead decide to be emphatically on both their sides. You want to understand their different positions and to work hard to help them sort out their own disputes, adopting the role of peacemaker or mediator rather than judge or jury. Before you get them to talk to one another, it is important to talk to each of them individually and to take time to really listen and understand. When you chat to your older son, encourage him to talk about his feelings of embarrassment and what underpins them. Perhaps he has some positive intentions when he “tries to parent is brother” such as trying to protect him. Rather than just telling him what you want, explore with him what type of relationship he wants with his brother and his ideas for getting on better together. Be empathic to both as you listen to each of them individually. For example, once you listen to your older son’s frustration at how his younger brother hits out, you can also help him understand his brother’s feelings of hurt because he looks up to him.

Explore creative options to help them get along together

While sometimes direct conversation can help resolve relationships, often it is indirect actions and context changes that can make the bigger difference. For example, in your question you describe how your sons get on better (or pretend to!) when with extended family or out in public. You could build on this by arranging for them to spend a weekend together with extended family or you could shake up dynamics in family holidays by bringing a couple of cousins along. You could also simply reward them to get along. You could make extra pocket money or special treats dependent on them being civil to one another. Or you could pay them to do a couple of household jobs together over the summer (such as painting a room or cleaning out the garage) and give them extra reward if they get along. Identifying a different and motivating context could make a difference. Be light about it when you offer these rewards: “There’s a bonus tenner if the two of you smile at one another.”

Finally, there may be a point when they are ready to talk to one another about getting on better, but pressure is unlikely to help. Instead continue to be patient and focus on maintaining your own individual relationships with them as parents. The more you understand and connect with them individually, the easier it will be for them to connect with each other.

— Send in your question by filling up the form below, or by e-mailing (with “John Sharry” in the subject line)

- John Sharry is Clinical Director of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is author of several parenting books including Parenting Teenagers.