Information on this area was requested in my Facebook Group for parents and professionals, by a couple of Mum’s that struggle with their children’s sibling rivalry. Comments like ‘they just like to wind each other up’ and ‘it seems to be getting worse’ were familiar.
I think the best place to start is to acknowledge the difference in dynamic of the sibling relationship, which is unlike no other. They have no choice but to spend a lot of time together and unlike the relationship with the parent or carer, their survival doesn’t depend on their attachment; so there’s nothing lost when one upsets the other.
One angle we could look at this from is that your children, when arguing or fighting, are learning about conflict and resolution. They are learning how to function within it, where the boundaries lie and what it feels like to hurt and be hurt. I’d say this was really important stuff; you’re children are less likely to get involved in fights at school and yet more inclined to stand up for themselves, if they’ve had practice. Would you agree?
As adults, not just as parents, we can lose the ability to understand the world from a child’s perspective. We forget what it’s like for everything to be so big – big people, big buildings; even big drinks - I remember how a can of Coke felt impossible to finish. We forget what it’s like not to have the awareness we have today, the language we’ve developed and the problem solving skills we’ve acquired. If you imagine having none of that, or a limited amount of it – how do you think it would make you feel when it came to expressing what’s going on for you when you’re tired and someone just invaded your space? Even that language ‘invade your space’ is very adult sounding isn’t it?
What I’m getting at here is that sometimes, their fighting is a non verbal expression of emotion and even, an example of when anger is starting to be used to express or cover more complex or uncomfortable feelings. Using anger instead of the true, underlying feeling is something many adults do too, so it really is worth speaking to your children about what’s happening for them; but I’ll come to this a little further down.
Another perspective is one of jealousy. Did you ever wonder ‘can I love another child like I love my first’? Whether the child is pre-verbal or not, I think we have to accept that there’s an element of anxiety on the child’s part too; ‘will I be loved as much as I am now / as much as the new baby’. In order to survive in infancy, we need to attach to a caretaker who will keep us alive – I’m heightening this a little bit to show how daunting a new baby can be for their sibling (and parent).
Can this explain rivalry when they are both no longer infants? Yes, I think it can.
Children are often very sensitive to fairness and therefore may perceive that one child is favoured, even momentarily, over the other; and when this happens, it will impact their developing sense of self and make them feel vulnerable. The difficulty again, is how to communicate this.
So, hopefully you can see that there are actual advantages to your children squabbling, for them at least… but when does this become more than development; when does siblings fighting, become a problem?
If your children fight, but at times can get along as though they love the bones of each other, I think, as hard as it can be at times, the fighting element is ‘normal’. However, if the aggression is taken outside of the home, and begins to impact their friendships too, then I would say this is a problem. I’m not saying that your child has a problem, the problem keeping it boundaried to this type of relationship; because it’s spilling out.
Let’s go straight to the strategies now –
When and how should I step in?
If you’re children are being caused injury or there is damage being done then they clearly need an adult to help them with the situation. If that adult is you, here’s what I would recommend as an approach:
Acknowledge their feelings as real. You may disagree or think that they set this up to happen by being provocative but it’s important that the feelings are attended to. If it’s soon after the event, just listen and try not to rationalise with them i.e. make them see what happens when they do a, b or c. There’ll be so much emotional energy in their current feelings that they won’t have the capacity to rationalise. They want to be validated, and you may not be able to validate their behaviour, but I think you can their feelings.
Speak to them separately as doing the above together won’t have the same impact; they’re both stood at opposite ends of the scale with regards to their needs.
When addressing behaviours, try and say it’s the behaviour you don’t like; be explicit about that. Sometimes children hear they’re out of control or aggressive or mean too many times and they begin to think it defines them. ‘I don’t like hitting’, ‘hitting your brother isn’t OK, even if you were angry’; and always offer different options to what they chose at the time. An example of a different option may be to scream into their pillow, scream for you or leave the room.
Prepare yourself that the other options you give will need time for children to get used to. This is because children are reactive and only by learning the process of how we think, then we feel, and then we do; will they be able to start using your alternative suggestions. Basically, you need to be a broken record; calm and consistent.
If you can make sure that your siblings have the opportunity to spend time apart, it increases their chances of giving ground and tolerating what sometimes they struggle to accommodate. This could mean time with a family member, at clubs or with separate friends; ‘take your sister with you’ might give you a break but it makes the older child’s separation from their sibling more difficult and resentment can build.
You may not feel like it, but you are their world and when they feel stressed, upset or overwhelmed, they borrow your resources to feel better. They borrow your kind words and their beliefs about them and they feel happier. The idea is that eventually your children will integrate all this into their own beliefs but this is really gradual, so if you can create some space away from their siblings and time alone with you – they will really feel the benefit.
If we give them the space, time and contact they need and invest in our patience and understanding – we will watch them flourish.