Dear Vicki: I have two teenage sons who used to get along well, but lately seem to be at each other’s throats. Jack, age 17, can come off like a know-it-all but, in his defense, he is very smart. Timmy doesn’t like Jack correcting him or telling him what to do, especially in front of others, but he’s still young enough (14 years) to make poor choices. I think Jack is just trying to help him, but when he does, Timmy really blows up; he has a very quick temper. I know that siblings can fight, but I’m concerned because since we moved to a new city for my husband’s job a few months ago, they seem to be fighting more and more. I thought the boys would be excited by the move, but apparently not. Any suggestions on how to help them get along? Their constant squabbling over everything is getting unbearable. Signed, Battle Weary Mom
Dear Battle Weary: To paraphrase Shakespeare, the course of sibling love never did run smooth, at least all the time. Siblings are often each other’s first friends, but also sometimes, first enemies. In the case of your sons, I’m sure you know that some fighting and competition is natural, especially in two boys so close in age. But if it gets out of hand it can hurt them both, so let’s look at what might be going on between them and see what we can do to help.
I suspect there are two primary dynamics at play between Jack and Timmy and, unfortunately, neither works to Timmy’s advantage. First, Timmy is the youngest, so from that perspective Jack will always appear to have the “upper hand” as the older brother. Second, if we look at their individual elemental personalities, I suspect they relate on the Controlling Cycle of the Five Elements model. In adults, Controlling Cycle relationships can take on a sense of support, but in children, it usually feels exactly like it sounds: controlling.
Based on your descriptions and the dynamic that has developed between the boys, I believe that Jack is a primary Metal personality. Metal people are usually very smart, know they are smart, and are very happy to share their wisdom with everyone. Stressed Metal personalities can become critical, controlling, and dismissive, and moving to a new city is stressful for people, whatever their age. For Metal personalities, letting go of things that matter is never easy, either, so a move to a new city will likely be especially hard on Jack. This may be partially why you are seeing his “know-it-all” behavior more with Timmy now. Metal people value control to keep their life stable. That sense of stability and control has gone out the window for Jack because of the move, so he is probably struggling some now and Timmy is bearing the brunt of it.
In the Five Elements model, the element controlled by Metal is Wood, and I think that is Timmy’s elemental personality. Wood people do anger easily and when stressed, their outbursts can be epic. Stressed Wood people are often impatient and frustrated, too, so that would make Timmy more irritable when Jack attempts to explain things or correct him. In addition to the fact that his older brother is trying to control him, Timmy is also dealing with the effects of the move. Wood people love to move forward, but only if they planned and embraced that move. Whereas Jack’s Metal personality likes to be in control, Timmy’s Wood personality will do almost anything to avoid being out of control. The move for his father’s job was clearly out of his control, so he’s probably really not a happy camper these days.
So, what can you do? Basically, you have two boys with issues around control who have just been through something (the family move) over which they had absolutely no control. I encourage you to do everything you can for a while to give them a sense of control over as much as possible in their lives. Ask them what they want for dinner and prepare it. Let them paint their new rooms any color they want. Go on outings they might enjoy together, if they agree on a place, or separately for a while if each wants a different event. Basically, do what you can to give Jack a sense of calm and order in his world and remove from Timmy’s world any sense of chaos.
Finally, when things settle down from the move (which they will), I suggest you have a private talk with each boy. Help Jack understand that Timmy needs the space to express his individuality. Remind Jack that it’s okay if Timmy does something in a less than perfect way; we learn from our mistakes as well as our successes. When Jack has an urge to correct Timmy, suggest that he ask Timmy if he would like some input. If Timmy says no, then leave it at that (hard for a Metal person to do, but not impossible). The good news is that not only are Metal people wise, they are typically very kind. If you explain a problem to them in a clear and logical way, they will usually be on board to help with the solution. I would expect that from Jack.
From Timmy’s perspective, remind him that Jack does have more experience than he does, so his ideas might be worth considering. This may or may not fly well right now, but it plants the idea with Timmy that there is likely to be value in Jack’s input. You can also encourage Timmy to start taking more responsibility for his own actions. For example, he might learn to monitor for himself when he thinks he’s gone too far and needs to pull back before someone (like Jack) comments. Learning and appreciating limits is a natural part of maturing. Having Timmy think about this ahead of time (which does build on a Wood person’s brilliance for planning) will foster his ability to be self-sufficient. A sense of self-determination is also very important to Wood people, so it’s possible Timmy will embrace this notion easily. And if he doesn’t now, he will later. Finally, why not ask him if he would prefer being called “Tim” now instead of “Timmy.” That alone may help shift some of the dynamic between the boys.
The bottom line is that prolonged tension between Metal and Wood people usually hurts both of them. I encourage you to initiate a dialogue with your boys to help manage their personality dynamics before the damage is irreparable. With a little work, you should be able to get the course of sibling love back on track and the arguments will turn into discussions. Blessings to you and your family!