Siblings At War

16th January 2015

Thinking of intervening in the arguments between your children? Think again, says Alex Gray. If your natural instinct is to stick your head in the sand, you may just be on the right track…

For 43-year-old mum Hannah Williams, the crunch point in her sons’ sibling rivalry came when the eldest, then 7, hit his brother in a moment of rage. It wasn’t that unusual in itself – their arguments often ended in fisticuffs – but he was holding a toy with a sharp edge in his hand at the time, and the result sent his brother off to A and E for stitches. He hadn’t meant to wreak such dramatic harm, of course, but it was a nasty shock for Hannah all the same.

Only 17 months apart, the brothers are each other’s best friend – and enemy. “From the moment they were aware of each other, they wanted to do everything together,” explains Hannah. “They wanted to be in the same room, always, but it meant intense rivalry and squabbling, which could often spill over into violence. One minute they’re playing together with the same toy, having the best time, and two seconds later it all goes wrong.”

Sound familiar? Sibling rivalry, of course, is a feature in just about every familial household. It ranks high on the list of parental concerns, and apart from the obvious concern about the children hurting each other, parents often feel as if they’ve failed because of it.

According to a study by the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Missouri, sibling rivalry can lead to symptoms of anxiety and low self-esteem in later life. The two main areas of rivalry that the study identified were issues of equality and fairness (eg bathroom use, computer use, whose turn it is to do chores and so on) and issues of invasion of the personal domain (eg borrowing something without asking, going into the other’s room without asking). Counter-intuitively, though, the study also suggests that parents who step in to play arbiter could actually make the situation worse in the long run.

In fact, how parents handle sibling conflict can dramatically transform the stress and tension in the household. Let’s set a typical scene. Parent is in the kitchen preparing a meal while the children play in another room. Parent thinks: great, they’re getting on; I’ll leave them to it. Before long, however, a squabble breaks out, and Parent feels compelled to go in and sort it out. Learning and behaviour specialist, parenting author, and founder and director of the Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting Centre in London Noël Janis-Norton, says this is exactly where Parent is going wrong. “A certain amount of sibling rivalry is completely natural and normal and inevitable,” explains Noël. “But because parents often unintentionally mishandle that small amount, by giving it lots of negative attention, they end up getting more of it. Even in the most loving of households, parents are busy people, so it’s easier to take for granted the good behaviour and not comment on it, but when the bad behaviour happens you feel like you have to go do something about it, so that’s what gets reinforced.”

But hang on a minute; even if Parent leaves them to it, they’re just going to end up coming to ask for their intervention, aren’t they? “Just listen,” advises Noël. “And don’t believe any of it. Each child will give you a version that paints themselves as completely innocent and paints the other one as the villain. They’re expecting somebody to get scolded and when you don’t – it’s not too long, usually just about a week – they will lose interest in complaining to you.”

But why do they fight so much in the first place? My own theory is that they have an inherent caveman mode, a kind of survival instinct; any sibling is essentially a threat. “Part of why siblings squabble is practice of life skills, and of course nowadays we’ve moved on and we’re not having to squabble over a piece of raw meat, but that’s still built into humans,” agrees Noël. But that may not be the only reason: “When children have different temperaments, one easy-going and one highly strung, then its much harder to stay positive as a parent with the one who is irritating you,” explains Noël. “That one will possibly feel less loved. They are no less loved, but actually they are less liked, and they sense it. And then it becomes a vicious circle because when parents feel guilty that they’re being impatient with one of the siblings, then they try and compensate by overlooking their bad behaviour or by giving in. That ends up making that child more demanding, and it can make the other child jealous.”

So without further ado, here are Noël’s top five tips for diffusing sibling rivalry.

1. Notice and mention...

...when the children are getting on. The kind of praise that parents give can be very over the top but children are savvy and they don’t believe it. Instead of saying “Oh you’re getting along so beautifully this is so lovely”, say: “You’re both looking at the book and no one is grabbing.”

2. Do not blame one child:

Often the older one is the villain of the piece: “You’re older, you should know better” or “I expect more from you”. As a parent you’re entitled to expect better behaviour from an older child, except when it comes to sibling issues. Usually the older one is more jealous than the younger because they’re the one that got kicked out of the nest.

3. Praise the older one to the younger one:

“You’re so lucky to have a big brother who teaches you how to tie your shoes.”

4. Special time:

One parent and one child doing something together that they both enjoy, not in front of a screen, that doesn’t cost money. Each child has the parent’s undivided attention. This goes a long way towards reducing sibling rivalry. The other sibling learns to play independently until it’s their turn for special time.

And last, but by no means least:

5. Do not, on any account, sort out their squabbles for them…

“Our children generally do know how to solve these problems for themselves, but if we intervene as if they don’t, they will become dependent,” says Noël. The University of Missouri study concurs, saying: “Although parents may be inclined to step in as arbiters, previous research has found that parents’ interventions into adolescent sibling conflict can be detrimental.” Setting clear house rules, such as the fact that siblings should knock before entering each other’s rooms, and setting equal time for computer use and so on, can minimise the conflict.

Point number four – Special Time – worked well for Hannah. “I read somewhere that a child’s cup needs to be full, and if one perceives that their sibling has a fuller cup, they will try to rob from it,” she says. “So I started spending time each of them in ways that made them feel that their ‘cup was full’. It could literally just be five minutes at bedtime; the point was that it was a moment of undivided attention. I guess it made whichever one it was feel ‘more loved’.”

But let’s not forget the benefits of siblings. The study notes that ‘sibling relationships involving a balance of both conflict and nurturance have been shown to provide unique social learning opportunities for older and younger siblings.’ For Hannah, the relationship between her boys altered when little sister Katherine arrived. “It completely transformed their relationship,” says Hannah. “Having a younger sibling has turned them into a team, in the way that they weren’t before. They now see themselves as role models, and my youngest loves the fact that now he’s somebody’s big brother.”

This may, of course, not be a viable solution for all families…

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