Brothers and sisters
Brothers and sisters have a unique relationship, unlike any other ones in life. We choose our friends and partners, but we are stuck with our siblings—like them or not! We grow up with them, and they grow up with us. We can have a close relationship with them, no relationship at all, and everything in between.
I think every parent dreams that their children will have a loving relationship. I was very fortunate, my brother and I were very connected growing up and we have retained that closeness as adults, despite being very different. And, my two daughters, who live in the same city, are also devoted to each other. They consider each other best friends. They appreciate the ease and comfort they have in their relationship. They fight, argue, and squabble with one another—but always feel loved and secure at the end of the day. They are even both pregnant at the same time! I know that if something happened to my wife and I, our daughters would be there for each other. That is comforting.
Truly, I am not sure what parents can do to foster a close relationship between siblings. In some cases, I think it is just that siblings have the right chemistry with each other. I do know that parents can act in ways that drive a wedge between their kids. So, I can’t tell you what to do, but I can make some suggestions about what not to do!
One of the biggest challenges of parenthood is dealing with sibling rivalry. Preschoolers and school-age children take careful note of who gets to drive in the front seat of the car, whose brownie had more nuts, or who got to lick the most icing off of the spoon! To parents, the energy connected to these issues seems out of whack with the actual concern.
Interestingly, some researcher’s feel that siblings, born closer together, have more opportunity to have squabbles and conflicts. It is this interaction which promotes a closer relationship as adults. Children born further apart don’t fight as much and are often more emotionally distant later on. This emotional intensity in childhood can lay the foundation for learning how to endure conflict and feel safe at the same time in adult relationships.
So what is sibling rivalry all about? How do we understand and respond to these heartfelt concerns? “The Sherlock Holmes” approach usually goes awry. In this scenario, the parental detective seeks evidence to discover “who done it” and punishes the perpetrator. But it is rarely that simple. I used to annoy my older brother on purpose and then watch him get punished by my parents when he became aggressive towards me. I would gloat in the corner, but later, my brother would get revenge.
Some points to consider:
- Acknowledge the child’s feelings. “ I know that you don’t like my paying so much attention to your baby brother”, “I know that it hurts when your brother calls you names”, or “I know that it makes you mad when your older brother gets to stay up later”. Validating your child’s feelings helps them realize that strong feelings are acceptable to you, and then, it helps them feel more comfortable with those emotions.
- It’s impossible to make everything equal. This is a fact! If you try to do this, as a way of defusing competition, it will only make things worse in the long run. Siblings, save for twins, are at different ages and have different needs and capacities. You wouldn’t give two children at different ages the same bedtime—it wouldn’t make any sense.
- Try to ignore attention getting behavior. My brothers and I would be fighting, wrestling, and hitting each other in the living room—screaming and yelling at the same time. My mother would walk by and calmly say “Boys, don’t get any blood on the rug. It stains” and walk right by. We would stop in our tracks!
- Spend individual time with each child. When our kids were young, I would take each one out for breakfast one morning a week. They liked the individual attention and it seemed to reduce their attention grabbing fights. Remember—being consistent and predictable is always important.
- Don’t “type cast” your kids. Avoid characterizing kids as “the athletic one”, ”the smart one”, “the creative one”, “the easy one”, “the hard one”, etc. This can create a comparison between siblings that is unhealthy. This can drive a wedge between your children.
What approaches have you used to defuse sibling conflict? Share your success stories!