Dear Dr. Wolf,
I have two teens – a son, 16, and a daughter, 15. They are jealous and filled with resentment for each other. But the really big thing that I just don't know what to do about is this: They tell me, all the time, about each other’s misbehaviours, and it drives me nuts. And while many are lies, many aren’t, and I am seriously going crazy trying to figure out the truth. I honestly don’t know what to do.
Dad in the Middle
Dear Dad in the Middle,
Little kids tattle on each other all the time. “I’m telling” trails probably only “It’s not fair” in popularity.
But when they enter adolescence, it can take on a far nastier tone. Let me use a fictitious example.
Sixteen-year-old Olivia, to her parents: “When you were out at your party Saturday night, Glenn had his loser friends over – the ones you don’t like – and they were drinking in the basement.”
Fourteen-year-old Glenn, to his parents: “Three times last week Olivia had Chuckie, her sort-of boyfriend, over after school and they were in her room with the door closed and I know what they were doing.”
The stakes are now higher. The definition of “bad” behaviour has changed. It’s no longer about cursing or sneaking cupcakes from the fridge. The consequences of those actions being revealed to parents are potentially worse. And the ill will that runs between teenage siblings who tell on each other becomes considerably more bitter and less easily forgiven. They’re not playing together the next day like nothing happened.
The real risk is that the bad feelings generated by teen tattling can go beyond mere sibling bickering and become something of real weight and permanence.
Why would teenagers tell on each other?
When they’re young, telling is usually about competition for parental attention and favour. The underlying message is, “In case you think my brother is a good child and maybe deserves more or even equal as me, let me tell you about another bad thing that he did. I’m your good child – so you should love me more. And also you should give me more stuff.”
But in adolescence, this competition fades. They now want to keep as much distance as they can from you. In fact, many teen siblings have an unspoken rule. They may still bicker, but they know they have an ally in the house. In effect: “I won’t tell if you won’t tell.” It can even become a bond between them that didn’t exist when they were younger.
So when teenage siblings do tell on each other, it often originates from a deeper resentment.
She’s popular and I’m not.
He gets good grades and never gets in trouble in school, unlike me.
Or it can be provoked by teenage depression, where a sibling becomes the available focus of bad feelings that have no other place to come out.
The problem is that telling – now that they’re teenagers – can make for true enmity that carries over into adult life.
So what can you do? Here’s one approach: inadmissible evidence. If information about misbehaviour committed by one of your children comes from one of her siblings, the misbehaver cannot get in trouble. The evidence is inadmissible because it was a product of telling. The one notable exception to your rule would be when the bad behaviour carries serious risk. But otherwise, it’s inadmissible.
You could actually say to each sibling: “If you think that there’s something happening with your brother that we need to know about, please feel free to tell us. But unless it is about something that is dangerous to him or others, we are not going to do anything in response to the information. The same will hold true if he tells us something about you.”
You’re giving them less to hate each other about.
What you’re telling them is, “As long as there is no risk of serious harm, supporting each other is more important than breaking rules. We don’t want either of you to do anything that could seriously hurt your relationship with each other as you get older.”
In adult life, having a sibling is a very big deal. Having someone with whom you have a long and deep bond – one that sustains over time – matters a lot.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books.