Look at any family and you will see competitiveness, rivalry and antagonism of some kind between the siblings. Look again at those same siblings and you are also likely to see fierce loyalty, protectiveness and love too. All aspects of human emotion and experience are played out in our sibling relationships. This will not be a balanced article as I am going to focus only on the conflictual aspects of sibling relationships. I do know that deep joy and love also occur, but that is a topic for another time.
Much of the information I have read about sibling rivalry suggests that we can tackle it by giving our kids more attention. One article I read suggested that our children need to know that love is not a finite resource. So if we just give them enough love and attention, our children will be conflict-free? I don’t buy this. It seems to be lazy, simplistic pseudo-advice and that isn’t of practical help to any parent who is pulling out their own hair about their children fighting and pulling out each other’s hair. It just adds guilt, makes parents feel responsible, and stops us looking for effective, tried and tested ways to manage the relationship dynamics between our children. We cannot keep them separated until they leave home and they will drive us crazy if we have to sort out every altercation, so what do we need to do? As parents should we let them just get on with it, fight it out and may the best man win, or do we have to be permanently on referee duty? Predictably and slightly boringly, of course, the answer lies somewhere between these two extremes.
Parents do need to monitor their children’s interactions so that they can intervene and stop physical fights and bullying that occur between them. Some children can be very frightening if they lash out physically and intimidate and manipulate emotionally. At its most basic level, the role of a parent is to create a comfortable, safe home in which children are free from harm. It can be extremely difficult to accept that one of our children is a bully, and it can be hard to know what to do if they are. Sometimes parents will also be afraid of their child and their behaviour. If you find yourself in this position, feeling helpless and powerless to stop your child, seek help immediately. Start by talking to your G.P. and your child’s school.
In the more mundane, everyday conflicts that happen, the best thing that parents can do is to teach children how to resolve the conflicts that arise. Conflict resolution simply means finding ways and coming up with solutions and methods to alleviate or eliminate sources of conflict. This is an ongoing and long-term task. We are unlikely to fully eliminate their disagreements, and this isn’t such a terrible thing. Strangely, children learn a great deal from the ‘negative’ aspects of their sibling relationships. They learn to manage difficult people, to negotiate, to voice their opinion, to practice conflict resolution skills, to regulate their own strong feelings, to make and accept apologies and to reflect on the effects of their own behaviour. And yet, we are easily drawn into feeling responsible for fixing the issues that arise between our children, and as you know, children can argue about anything, whether it makes sense or not, and whether it is a major issue or a seemingly tiny one.