Parenting Matters: Complex Sibling Relationships

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Patti Grant, LICSW

If sibling rivalry is an issue that affects your household, you may understand how stressful it can be for everyone in the house to bear. You may be at a loss to know how to stop the fighting, or question whether they shouldn’t just, “work things out.” Let’s first take a look at the basis for sibling rivalry.

Tension between siblings can run in a few different forms. One form that is most common is that siblings tend to look at each other as equal even if their age is not. This may come out as, “Why does she get to have a phone?” or, “Why can’t I stay out that late?” School-age kids especially may be very black and white in their thinking about fairness, such as when they see parents giving preferential treatment to a younger sibling (such as greater physical affection).

A second form of tension stems from individual temperaments. These temperaments, including mood, disposition and flexibility, as well as their unique personalities play a large role in how well siblings get along. For example, if one child’s disposition is to be okay with close proximity, but another child delineates their personal space, it can lead to conflict. “But that’s my side of the couch!” Does this sound familiar?

Another form of tension can stem from kids that have special needs, either emotionally or medically. The child who isn’t sick may resent the amount of the parent’s attention that this sibling needs. This child may also not be able to verbalize this feeling well, and it may come out in a way that makes it hard to address, such as, “Why does he always get everything he wants?” Maybe this is a phrase you tend to hear that leads to tension for everyone.

The final form of tension that can impact siblings is their role models. The way that parents-and other close family members-resolve problems and conflict sets a strong example for their kids. If family members tend to yell, call names and isolate themselves, siblings are likely to do the same. However, if family members can work through conflict in a way that’s healthy and respectful, it increases the chance that the children will adopt the same tactics.

So what do you do when the fighting starts? Whenever possible, don’t get involved. If the siblings can work things through in a productive way without your help, that will be the best for their self-esteem and problem solving development. You also risk been seen as taking sides whenever you step in, based on past experiences of the children or simply even the timing of when you step in. However, always intervene in a situation where you feel they might become violent with each other.

If and when you do decide to step in, try to resolve problems with your kids, not for them. Following are some suggestions to follow when stepping in.

Separate kids until they’re calm (as well as yourself). Unless everyone is calm, fighting can resume and the problem solving cannot.

Take the focus off blame, as focusing on who’s to blame only exacerbates fighting. This can be done by encouraging each child verbalize their concerns, one at a time.

Voice your own concerns for their fighting, such as how you feel like family life could improve, or how you’re concerned they’re going to hurt each other.

Ask them to come up with a mutually agreeable and feasible solution that addresses all the concerns. Be careful to throw out solutions that won’t be likely to have follow through, or ones that don’t consider all of the concerns.

Support solutions that children come up with, check their follow through and come back to the table to talk if the solution is attempted and it doesn’t help resolve the original concerns.

There are also some simple techniques that can be used every day to help kids get along. An important one to use is to explain to the child that, “equal is not always fair, and fair does not always mean equal,” in that each child gets what he or she needs, and sometimes one child may need more than another. Another important technique is to set ground rules for behavior. Tell the kids that if an argument starts, they must keep their hands to themselves, and yelling, cursing or name-calling, as well as abuse to objects (slamming doors or throwing things) are not allowed. Explain to kids that they are not responsible for getting angry, but they are responsible for their behavior.

You can also be proactive in getting involved in each of your children’s interests, and make sure you give each child some one-to-one time on a consistent basis. Make sure each child has their own space to do their own thing, either to take space quietly, go outside, or enjoy activities with peers without their sibling tagging along. Tell your kids that you love them both, without limits.

It’s also important to have fun as a family as well. It can be as simple as throwing a ball together or playing a board game, something that establishes a peaceful time that you can all relate as a time that everyone got along well. Also keep in mind that the fighting may be for attention, and if you leave the situation, it may remove the incentive for fighting.

If fighting is occurring daily, you can hold family meetings weekly or daily to review the ground rules and work on solutions to resolve conflicts, as outlined in the bullets above. If children frequently fight about the same issue, it’s a sign that a collaborative approach is needed, with parents modeling problem-solving behavior.

In a small percentage of families, the conflict between siblings is so severe that it disrupts daily functioning, such as the children’s ability to go to school on time or attend extra-curricular activities. Fighting can be so severe that it can affect kids emotionally or psychologically. In these cases, please do seek help from a mental health professional. If you have any questions about your children, you can also speak to their pediatrician, who can help you assess whether you and your family might benefit from seeking out professional help or refer you to local behavioral health specialists.

 

Patti Grant, LICSW

(617) 606-7450

grant@copernican.us

Private Practice:

Newton: 44 Thornton Street, Newton,

Lexington: The Liberties, Suite #11, 33 Bedford Street, Lexington, MA 02420

Copernican Clinical Services: www.Copernican.us  “We Help People Change”

Phone: (617) 606-7450

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