HELPING SIBLINGS BE A RESOURCE TO EACH OTHER
Most of us grew up with a sibling. Our childhoods are full of memories of sibling fights and competition, of shared secrets and intense loyalty. A sibling relationship always seems to vacillate between love and hate. What can parents do to help children manage this love-hate relationship?
I want to be an only child
A common childhood fantasy is to be the only child. This would mean getting all the attention, love, and resources from parents. Only children and first-borns get to live in this fantasy for a little while, until another baby comes along. It doesn’t matter if the new baby is real or imagined, a sibling, cousin or peer at playgroup, the arrival of another baby is initially hard. The child thinks “I am no longer the baby. This new baby stands in my place. I can’t have all the attention, love and resources in the world. Who am I if I am no longer the baby?”
I hate my sibling
When the child’s place in the world is threatened by a new baby, the child often thinks destructive and envious thoughts. In a child’s mind, the only way to be the only baby again is to destroy this new baby. But, parents tell children they are not allowed to hate or destroy their siblings. The child feels jealous that this new baby has taken their place. This is at the centre of most sibling rivalry and is something all children feel at times. Hate, competition, envy, and destruction: all part of the sibling experience.
I love my sibling
But something else happens when another baby appears on the scene. The child thinks “This new baby is just like me! We both live in this world and we belong to each other.” The new baby becomes part of the child’s surroundings, creating a sense of security and acceptance. Siblings can play together for hours, creating a world where they can just be themselves. They can become partners-in-crime and fiercely protect each other from anyone who tries to hurt them. They can also hurt each other, but this is often followed by guilt and tenderness, creating an opportunity for siblings to learn forgiveness. Love, loyalty, protection, belonging and forgiveness: also all part of the sibling experience.
When siblings hurt
Siblings provide a special type of relationship for our children to learn about who they are and learn to relate to others who are the same as them in some ways and different to them in other ways. We can’t just expect our children to work out their fights, differences and conflicts by themselves. Instead, it is the role of parents to facilitate healthy sibling relationships in children.
While your child may want to hurt their sibling, your role is to facilitate the expression of these feelings AND prohibit the enactment of these feelings. If they do (inevitably) hurt each other, parents need to help children understand that while these feelings are okay, their behaviour is not. If parents do this with sensitivity, a new feeling will emerge: guilt about wanting to or having hurt another person. This guilt will most likely lead them back to their sibling with an apology and present an opportunity for both children to learn how to manage conflict and practice forgiveness.
As parents we may prefer for our children to always love their siblings so we can live in peace. However, learning to accept the love-hate nature of the sibling relationship is important. We need to help our children navigate these conflicting feelings about their siblings. This starts with allowing our children to talk about their feelings about their siblings. Your child needs to express the love and hate they feel about their siblings to you. In doing so, they need to feel that they still are accepted and loved by you, especially when it comes to their negative feelings.
How parents can help
Parents provide a vital role in facilitating and managing the relationship between their children. The following practical tips may be helpful:
- Let your children express their competition and envy. Allow them to say “I wish I could run as fast as my brother.”
- Let your children know they are each important to you and your family. Take time with each of your children so that they feel secure in their attachment to you as parent. Make space for each child in your day.
- Let your children know that they are different to each other and that’s okay. “I know you wish you could run as fast as your brother, but you have different abilities. The way you hit a ball is excellent. That is one of your many special skills.”
- Talk to your children about how they feel about each other. “Yes, your brother is a fast runner. Do you have any feelings about that?” The feelings between siblings may be positive or negative, but your role as parent is to make sure those feelings are heard by you.
- Set sibling rules that prohibit hitting, biting, smacking, teasing, bullying, belittling or fighting. Instead, encourage your children to talk through differences. This means that you have to get involved in fights and show your children how to talk through and manage their differences in healthy ways.
- Promote reparation between your children if they do break the sibling rules (which they will test and break at times). You can’t be with your children all day which means that fights will happen in which you can’t determine who started the fight or who is to blame. Taking sides isn’t going to help. Your job as parent is to be the lawgiver and sheriff and judge (phew, tough job!)
As parents we need to help our children be secure in themselves and in their relationships with others. Siblings can provide the ideal training ground for our children to learn about themselves and learn how to have healthy relationships with others. Parents need to set the rules for sibling relationships, follow through and follow up. If parents do so, we give our children a healthy relationship with their siblings that can be a resource throughout their lives.