Sibling rivalry has always had a bad press – think of Cain slaughtering Abel and Joseph being thrown down the well and sold by his brothers because they were jealous of his beautiful multi-coloured coat!
Sibling rivalry can apply to any child living in the same family, from step brothers and sisters to blood related brothers and sisters – and it refers to the jealousy, competition, teasing and fighting that goes on between them – and all the experts seem to agree that it stems from your child’s deep desire and need for your exclusive love – and their need for your attention and their sense of identity, self worth and specialness within your family.
So let’s look at why siblings fight. Siblings fight for a number of reasons:
They fight because they want your parental attention, and you naturally only have so much time, attention and patience to give.
They fight because they are jealous: “He got a new bike. I didn’t. They must love him more than they love me.”
They fight over ordinary teasing which is a way of testing the effects of behaviour and words on another person: “He called me…” “But she called me…first.”
They fight because they are growing up in a competitive society that teaches them that to win is to be better: “I saw it first.” “I beat you to the water.”
They are vying for your attention and if they don’t feel valued or feel they are getting equal amounts of your love and approval they will fight for it and as they don’t always know positive ways to get you to notice or respond to them – and any attention is better than none.
Teenagers fight for the same reasons that younger children fight.
But teenagers are bigger, louder and better equipped physically and intellectually to hurt and be hurt by words and actions.
From a parent’s point of view, they “ought” to be old enough to stop that kind of behaviour but what a lot of parents I work with tend to forget is that teenagers are under a lot of pressure from many different directions.
Physical, hormonal and emotional changes and changes in thinking cause pressures, as do changing relationships with parents and friends.
Teens may be concerned about real or imagined problems between you. They feel pressure about their future as adults and about learning to be an adult. And sometimes they feel a bit scared of it all and look for ways to get your attention or get noticed.
In many ways, teens are in greater need than ever for your parental love, attention and concern and for a belief that they are as good as their siblings. They ultimately need your understanding.
Your teenager may not recognise these needs or may be too embarrassed to express them verbally, so fighting with siblings is a great or easy way to get your attention just like younger children do also.
Your “job” is to start to be aware of this aspect to your relationships.
Just relax and let’s just imagine life from the viewpoint of your child for a few minutes.
I want you to relax and let’s do a little exercise that you may find very interesting. Just put in your own word that fits your circumstances – “husband” or “wife” “partner” or “he” or “she” throughout this exercise.
Just imagine that your partner has come home and puts their arm around you and says “You know I love you so much and I think you’re really wonderful so I’ve decided to add another wife to our lives just like you.”
Write down your reaction:
When the new “wife” finally arrives you see that she’s younger than you and very cute. When people see you all together out shopping they say hello to you politely but really fuss and pay attention to the new wife saying things like “ohhh isn’t she pretty and soooo adorable – sooo amazing”
Then they turn to you and say “And how do you like your new wife then – isn’t she lovely?”
Write down your reaction:
The new wife needs some new clothes so your husband goes into the cupboard and starts taking out your clothes – all your lovely jumpers and trousers and things you loved to wear and he helpfully points out that now you’re bigger you won’t be wanting them anymore so isn’t it great that you can pass them on to your lovely new wife?
Write down your reaction:
Every month your new wife is growing quickly and developing in new and different ways to you and one evening while you are struggling with your computer she pops in and says – “Ohh great – this is how you do it – it’s so easy isn’t it – what fun!”
Write down your reaction:
When you feel all indignant and tell her to stop doing things you find annoying or interrupting you, she runs off to your husband crying and complaining about you. He immediately storms over to you with his arms around her saying “ Honestly I can’t believe you – what do you think you’re doing upsetting her like this – why can’t you just share and take turns – you’re older and supposed to be wiser than her?.”
Write down your reaction
So what did you discover about yourself from doing that exercise?
The point of this exercise is to change your perspective on being a sibling!
Did you find that your reactions were less than charitable? Perhaps you found yourself being mean, petty, cruel or spiteful or wanting to hit her!
This is just a taster of an older sibling’s reaction to a younger one so let’s look at the reaction a year later when you tell your husband how you feel and he responds with “That’s ridiculous – you know I love you both the same”
“Why must you be so negative about this all the time – why can’t you just get along together?
Again this could be the way you handle sibling rivalry at the moment and that’s OK because now I’m going to suggest you try something different.
Having a brother or a sister could represent less time with you in the eyes of your child- less attention, less time for talking together, sharing fun together, less time to be heard when they have a worry, less toys, less food, less help with homework, less space – someone who might be better at things than you are – who could shine in things you can’t do, who could excel in areas you can’t, who could be the apple of your parent’s eye because they can do all these amazing things that your parents value and think is great.
Just think back over your own life and the hurts, disappointments and memories that have shaped you when you think of your own brothers and sisters. Think of things that have happened to you, think of things you’ve seen, heard or felt – both positive and negative – this is just to get you to really tap into the world from your children’s point of view.
I’m not dwelling on this to paint a horrible picture but just getting you to change your perspective on your family life and getting you to see things from a different perspective – and to see things from your child’s point of view.
It’s about realising that you can make a difference in the lives of your kids by either intensifying competition or by reducing it – you can now accelerate the fighting or make co-operation a way of life in your home.
Like nightmares or sleepwalking, sibling rivalry is one of the inevitable consequences of having children – the clashes, the attention seeking, the digs and jibes, the mini or sometimes major battles that go on at home – where you sometimes feel like a Premiership referee stuck in the middle trying to be fair and trying to get things right is all part of bringing up kids but it’s all about how you perceive your role and what you choose to do about it – it’s about your attitude first and the atmosphere you want to create in your home and the types of relationships you want to develop in your children.
Your attitude and words have power.
I remember working with a mum who wanted her children to be “friends” and as a result of that she felt she was constantly riding a roller coaster at Disneyland in which she had no control. Every time they played “nicely” she felt great and a “good” mother – every time they fought she felt a failure and felt despair.
“They hate each other and it’s my fault” she kept saying to herself.
By letting go of this idea and seeing her job as a mum in a new way freed up her energy and also her confidence.
Instead of worrying about her boys becoming friends she started to see her job as equipping them with the attitudes and skills that they needed to learn for all their caring relationships in life, as well as in their sibling relationship.
She started to move away from who was “right or wrong” to how she could teach them about respect – respecting their differences as well as learning ways to resolve their differences – and from there she moved on to helping them learn how to celebrate their individuality, to enjoying their similarities and respecting their unique and different talents and abilities and their very different skills.
She taught them how to build the “team” mentality, so important in a family that gets on together. They started to celebrate each other’s successes and learnt not to see them as their own failures.
For example they celebrated when one of them scored a goal in their Sunday football team, or one of them won a swimming gala, or recognising that one of them was good at maths while the other one was good at English. It wasn’t a competition anymore, it was about friendship and love and respect for each other as brothers.
She taught them respect which is the key energy of any successful family.
Building the “WE” mentality of a team
The “we” rather than “me” mentality is so important in a family. It builds trust, support, loyalty, love and a true foundation for security and self esteem.
I think it’s helpful to have the attitude of being “high on harmony and low on rivalry” and I believe if you have this as your goal – things begin to fall into place.
So just for this week start to notice the ways you talk to your children and how you spend time with them individually. Also notice how to encourage and nurture the “we” spirit of a family team.
If you don’t like what you discover – don’t beat yourself up – just make a commitment to trying some new approaches over the next week and pat your self on the back when you start to notice an all round improvement.
Remember you may just create the Brady Bunch after all!
Sue Atkins is a Parent Coach and Author of “Raising Happy Children for Dummies” one in the famous black and yellow series and mother of two teenage children. She has written many books on self esteem, toddlers and teenagers and has a collection of Parenting Made Easy Toolkits including “Banishing the Bickering” audio CD and workbook available from her website.
To find out more practical guidance for bringing up well-behaved, confident kids go to => http://www.TheSueAtkins.com
Sue Atkins is a Parenting Expert who offers practical guidance for bringing up happy, confident, well behaved children. She is also the author of “Raising Happy Children for Dummies” one in the black and yellow series published worldwide and the highly acclaimed Parenting Made Easy CDs. She regularly appears on BBC Breakfast and The Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 and her parenting articles are published all over the world.
To receive her free ebooks bursting with practical tips and helpful advice from toddler to teen log onto http://www.thesueatkins.com and download them today.