One of the most common concerns amongst parents is sibling rivalry. Sometimes the rivalry is quite innocuous – like when siblings fight over which side of the couch to sit on or who got more French fries. Other times it’s more extreme, like when there’s hair pulling and toys being thrown like speeding bullets from one end of the room to another.
Parents typically step in but then end up becoming part of the hostile dynamics. Their kids accuse them of taking sides, making the situation worse or being unfairly punitive. An intervention at the first sign of a fistful of hair is not a bad idea, but what about the majority of the time, when spats are not as serious or potentially harmful?
I know that it’s only with the best of intentions that you try to mediate – hoping to end the fight quickly so as to restore relative calm. You may also worry about your children’s future relationship. So, a mom might say something like “no one knows you or cares about you like your brother (or sister) and when dad and I are older, it would be nice to know that you are going to be good to each other when we are gone.”
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee. Even though parents of only children often feel guilty about not giving their child a sibling – potentially the longest relationship that one has with another human being in their lifetime – many adults say their relationship with their siblings are so estranged that it would be less painful to have been an only child.
When I ask adults “if you were not related to your sibling by birth (or by living in the same family), would you choose him or her to be your friend?” many say that they would not. So, the question is: why not?
There are many reasons for division between siblings, some of which originate during their growing up years or are due to factors that no one has any control over. For example, there is birth order to consider and the way that each child feels as a result of his or her position in the family. The age gap between siblings can affect their relationship and added to this, the age and time of life at which parents had each. Siblings, despite being raised by the same parents, may have very different personalities, temperaments and outlooks on life. They may just not be compatible. The dynamics at home can affect sibling relationships too. One child may identify more with angry, resentful mom, for example, and the other may have a special place in her heart for dear dad who she perceives as being belittled and down trodden. This division within the family may be played out by the siblings – when they are young and even as they grow into adults – with each defending the other parent’s position. Parents, tell your children that you appreciate their help but that mom and dad can fight their own battles.
You may wonder if working on family dynamics, exploring how you model resolving issues in relationships with your adult siblings, and changing some of your behaviour towards your children’s battles will ensure that everything will go according to plan. Not entirely, but the odds will be increased. Even siblings with different temperaments can agree to disagree. Sometimes they don’t always like or are disappointed in the other, but there’s an increased likelihood of them being able to work through this so long as parents don’t try to enforce love and affection and a feeling that to love one’s sibling is a responsibility or obligation.
Other factors that affect how well or poorly your children get along – now and later – include what you say to each about or in front of the other. Even telling one child how much better behaved he is than his brother or confiding in one child about how frustrated you are with her sister can lead to no good. The better behaved child may not appreciate being put on a pedestal and the message he gets is that his brother is inferior. Confiding in a child about his sibling puts him in a difficult position. If you want to create a strong alliance between siblings, then let them be on the same team.
When your child is frustrated with her sibling and comes to tell you about it, try not to take sides. Instead, encourage each of them to work it out together. Let them know that you have confidence that they can. And when they’re struggling and share mean words with you about the other, listen and acknowledge but try not to pass judgement or put a band aid on it. Instead of “don’t say that about your sister. She didn’t mean what she said and you should love her,” rather say something like “you’re angry and frustrated with your sister and don’t want to be around her right now. But I know you can work it out later.”
Although your intentions to help your children work things out when they are young are honourable, consider that you may be robbing them of the opportunity to work through their issues. Allow them to work things out (not just when they are young, but when they are adults too ) – not for you, but because they want to. Often siblings grudgingly work things out when their parents are alive because they don’t want to disappoint or upset them. Then, when the parents pass away, the sibling relationship falls apart.
So, the next time your children are fighting, think about short term pain for long term gain and keep in mind that your intervention may actually result in quite the opposite of what you’re hoping for.