By Bridget Erin
Siblings can play together, support each other, and serve as role models for each other. Unfortunately, they can also annoy, provoke, and bully. When children don’t get along, family life is anything but peaceful and harmonious, leaving parents exasperated and stressed out. Parents may wonder if they are to blame for the animosity between their children, and how they can improve the situation. Is it better to step in and take charge, or let the children work it out?
“In my psychiatric practice, I often hear parents express frustration over sibling issues,” says Baton Rouge psychiatrist, Dr. Donna Fargason. “I also hear other parents sigh and say that they just hope it works out someday. I find that their perspectives in what they expect and also what they will tolerate most often stems from their own childhood and sibling relationships. The point is that we as parents encounter this issue with our own baggage.” Some parents who remember being tormented by siblings may want to protect their children from a similar experience, while others may accept this behavior as normal and impossible to prevent. Conversely, parents who have fond memories of warm sibling relationships may not understand why their own children cannot get along.
What causes hostility between siblings? “Factors that influence that may be gender differences, ages of siblings, personality traits, and also parental input,” says Dr. Fargason. She adds, “Sometimes a parent may identify better with one child and therefore be able to empathize with that child’s point of view more readily. This can make it difficult to be neutral in helping to resolve sibling relationship issues, so it’s important to be aware if this is the case.”
“The surprise is when siblings get along and don’t have problems,” says Baton Rouge Clinical Psychologist Ron Boudreaux. From the point of view of a child, he says, “If my primary attachment figure…looks like he or she is being taken by someone else, that is serious, serious business.” This competition can lead to dangerous situations, particularly in very young children who have less control over their anger and are more prone to violent outbursts. Therefore, Dr. Boudreaux recommends that parents be very observant, “making sure that your child is not going to hurt or damage the other child.”
Children with special needs
It can be particularly challenging when one child in the family requires more attention from their parents, as a result of special needs or a disability. Although in this case, parents give that child more time and energy out of necessity rather than an arbitrary choice. For the other siblings, “It still hurts, and they still feel deprived,” says Dr. Boudreaux. Parents who are overwhelmed by their caregiving responsibilities to one child may feel they don’t have much energy left for their other children. “It’s exhausting, because these parents are worn out,” Dr. Boudreaux acknowledges. But he stresses the importance of making sure the other children in the family don’t feel ignored. It can help for parents to verbally recognize their children’s feelings on the issue, he says, by telling them, “I know you feel this way.” He also recommends that parents find time to do what they can, such as making a commitment to attend a non-affected child’s ball games faithfully.
Another cause of fighting between siblings could be that they are mimicking behavior of adults in the household. “In a household or community where bickering and blaming are the norm, expect to see that in your child,” says Dr. Fargason. “Conversely, when respectful and thoughtful conversations and negotiations occur, children are more likely to have a background of positive interactions in order to explore those strategies.”
Working it out together
Once children get a bit older, if physical danger is less of a concern, it can be helpful for them to learn how to work out their differences with less parental input. Dr. Boudreaux recommends that parents “intervene for safety, but not before.” If parents are able to wait a while instead of immediately jumping in to fix the problem, they may find that the children are able to work it out on their own, and their input is not necessary. If a parent does need to step in, he recommends “joint consequences,” which refers to the practice of disciplining children equally, putting them in the same boat. For example, if siblings won’t stop arguing, a parent could send them both to their rooms for five minutes, without taking sides in the children’s argument or trying to make judgments as to which child is more to blame. This method can help children to understand that they have a mutual responsibility not to let their disagreements get out of hand.
Bullying and victimization
Sometimes parental guidance is necessary, or a hostile sibling relationship could have lasting negative effects on a child. “Too often I hear of parents saying they let their kids work things out only to learn that one child consistently bullies or dominates the other,” says Dr. Fargason. “Unchecked, those characteristics are likely to become part of the personality of that child, and the other will take on the victim role. As a result, those behavioral methods often carry over into other relationships.” Dr. Fargason recommends that parents discuss their own sibling histories with each other, and work together to develop goals for their family, as well as strategies for reaching those goals. “Teaching children to negotiate their issues with a heart of love for each other is the most important strategy I have learned,” she says. “I tell my kids all the time that God put them in our family together in order to learn how to love each other so that they will be better also at loving others. That’s our goal – plain and simple.”
One basic thing parents can do is to notice and praise their children when they get it right. Dr. Boudreaux recommends statements such as, “It’s wonderful to see you working things out together.” That kind of positive reinforcement can show children that when they make an effort to get along, they will receive recognition and attention. But parents should expect both progress and setbacks, with sibling relationships changing throughout the years as children grow. “Children are impulsive, egocentric, and have to be taught how to relate – not only to each other, but in general,” Dr. Fargason says. “Teaching and modeling the kind of behavior we would like to see in our children is not a one-time event. It has to become a way of life.”