It’s normal in childhood for siblings to fight and push each other’s buttons, even to test some boundaries. But once brothers and sisters cross the threshold of adulthood, crossing boundaries can have greater consequences. Some adult siblings may repeatedly ask their brothers or sisters for money, request excessive time and attention from them, or invade their privacy. If your sibling is consistently behaving in a way that makes you uncomfortable, it’s important to express your discomfort and set clear boundaries for yourself in order to grow and maintain a healthy adult relationship.
Write about the problem before talking to your sibling. Identify the source of your discomfort by starting a journal entry about what your sibling does that makes you upset, and why you feel this way. Then decide on a solution that would be comfortable for you. If your sibling wants to come to your house for dinner every night, and you think that’s too much to ask, how often would you prefer to have dinner together, and where? Focusing on positive solutions instead of negative feelings will be the first step in maintaining the health of your relationship.
Decide on a good time and place to talk to your sibling. This should be a comfortable setting for both of you. Consider meeting at a coffee shop or taking a walk in a park so that the setting for your conversation is neutral, and neither of you feels trapped. Setting boundaries is likely to be awkward at first, so make sure that the surroundings allow both of you some space to process the conversation.
Plan what you’re going to say. Remind yourself to stay calm, and to assume that your sibling has good intentions. If you both care about each other, then s/he probably never meant to hurt you. Instead of starting your request with a negative remark about his/her behavior, start with a positive remark about your relationship. Dr. Jerry Cook, associate professor at California State University, Sacramento, recommends reminding your sibling that you value your relationship before broaching the subject of boundaries.
State your boundaries clearly, framing them in terms of your needs instead of your siblings’ behavior. Propose a clear solution that might work for both of you. Your sibling’s feelings may initially be hurt, but remember that if both of you value the relationship, an honest conversation will strengthen your bond in the long run. Ask your sibling what he/she thinks of your proposed solution. Remember to listen to your sibling and seriously consider his/her point of view.
Reinforce the boundaries. It may take some time for your sibling to negotiate the new rules you have proposed for your relationship. When your sibling says or does something that makes you feel good, let him/her know. But if your sibling crosses the line again, calmly remind him/her that those actions are hurting you, and request that he/she stop. Over time, setting clear boundaries in an adult manner will create more positive behavior for both you and your siblings.
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- If you want to set boundaries with adult step-siblings or half-siblings, you may have to negotiate slightly different relationship rules than those of full siblings. According to a study by Lynn White and Agnes Riedman in The Journal of Marriage and Family, step and half-siblings often don’t feel as much obligation toward each other as full siblings, and therefore may have more strict boundaries. Decide how much familial obligation you feel toward your step or half-sibling before proceeding.
Emma Wells has been writing professionally since 2004. She is also a writing instructor, editor and former elementary school teacher. She has a Master's degree in writing and a Bachelor of Arts in English and anthropology. Her creative work has been published in several small literary magazines.
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