Romulus and Remus

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Watching my kids this Easter weekend made me think about the bonds siblings share (thankfully they play well). Such connections are among the most profound we can have with another human being. These bonds should be nurtured,but they should also be respected for they may be driven by the desire to tear down as much as rebuild. Sibling rivalry, although seemingly trivial in childhood can reverberate far into the future. I believe it is paramount that we deal with such things in their beginnings. Damage done here is almost impossible to reverse in adulthood.

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the frequent bids for supremacy that pepper the typical parental day. The sheer array of what kids are prepared to compete and bicker about is truly staggering. They can include such vital debates as ‘who gets into the car first’, ‘Who has the longer finger nail ’, ‘Which avocado is bigger’ and much more. Apparently this is entirely normal, which is funny because by any detached observation it appears absolutely insane.

So what does this rivalry mean and what can we do about it?

A number of pundits rather sensibly point out that the issue is one of attention and approval rather than merely being oppositional for the sake of it. This squabbling is a process by which children seek validation from a parent. How one should tackle this seeking behaviour is by no means straightforward and there are many who are willing to weigh in on the matter.

Favourable or unfavourable comparison to a sibling, for example, may present itself as a short term solution to resolving a fight, but it can magnify and inflame any rivalry that exists. In the eyes of some parents such ‘comparisons’ are also an effective way to foster competition and promote achievement. I would hope that many more would agree that this approach is grossly misguided and likely very destructive as it creates an atmosphere in which children come to believe that the easiest way to garner parental approval is by bringing a sibling down. Furthermore, the inability to resolve rivalries in childhood can lead to serious long term problems. It is by its nature divisive and engenders enmity. And this is sad. To lose something as valuable as the love and support of a sibling is a profound loss indeed.

So what is the solution? I have many thoughts here and am also aware that there are many answers to be found when scouring the net. Here are some of them to help begin the thinking process…

1) Don’t let them conclude by your words or actions that they have to compete for your approval.

2) Where possible let them resolve their own problems (within acceptable parameters of course such as no hitting or yelling). If you do need to mediate it is important that you allow them to reach a resolution by themselves. In a dispute over what to watch on television, for example, you might withhold the remote for a period of time or until they come to an agreement. Such an approach is more likely to foster discussion, cooperation and compromise.

3) An article in the Huff Post recommends the strategy of giving each child within the family a ‘day’. This basically entails allowing that child to make all the child-related decisions for a particular day. Decisions about who gets to go in the front seat of the car, which television channel to watch, what bedtime story to read and so on would be decided by that child. The next day will be given to their sibling and the power to make these decisions will revert to them. Such days can be alternated between all the respective children in a particular family so each day is accounted for. In this way, a child can experience leadership responsibilities and the pride and confidence that accompanies this. Similarly, each child within the family unit also has an opportunity to be generous. They can choose to incorporate the views of their siblings into their decisions or they might elect to be selfless and put their needs of their brother or sister above their own. They might decide, for example, to watch a movie they think their sibling might like.

Regardless of what decisions are taken, such days make each child feel special. More importantly they encourage the development of key social attributes. By allowing the ‘leader’ child to see the effects of the decisions they make, they are able to learn empathy. The child that is not designated ‘leader’ by contrast learns respect (i.e. that the decisions for that day ultimately rests with another) and patience (in awaiting the decision of the ‘leader’ and of their day). Importantly, this approach establishes a routine and an order which they understand and willingly adhere to.

4) Respect each child’s unique needs. Sometimes one solution does not fit all.

5) Avoid comparisons. This is worth repeating. Many of us did not enjoy this as children. They won’t either. Parents often heap praise on a child in an effort to boost self-esteem, but it is not unheard of, for them to do so in ear shot of an underperforming sibling in an effort to persuade them to clean up their act. More often than not this sends a message of superiority or inferiority and can lead to further rivalry. A level of discretion when giving such praise is not a bad thing. Indeed, taking a quiet moment to give one-to-one praise will allow the child in question to feel truly special and it will avoid the risk of engendering insecurity in the other. This is a delicate balancing act for any parent.

6) Establish ground rules for behaviour. Children need to understand early on what is appropriate and inappropriate. Ideally, this will be reinforced as they mature.

7) Listen to them. Like a volcano, a kid without a means to vent is likely to explode. Allow them space and time to release pressure and talk through their frustrations in a regular and controlled way.

8) Encourage good behaviour.

9) Show them love.

10) Don’t turn praise into labels i.e. the ‘funny’ one, the ‘shy’ one etc. It sends the wrong message and can encourage a child to believe they are fixed in some way. It diminishes their sense that they are in control of their own destiny.

Even more damaging is a tendency to designate a child as the go-to-kid (the one who can be relied upon to successfully execute a particular task) as it tells the other siblings that they are deficient in some manner. This can be as subtle as allowing one to carry a bowl of salad to the table over another. Invest in a plastic bowl and give equal opportunity. Age appropriate household tasks should be equitably divided. In this way everyone gets a chance to succeed and fail.

11) A parent’s job is not to merely determine who started the conflict but, and perhaps more importantly, to encourage those involved to commit to figuring out how to resolve it on their own and perhaps to think why it began in the first place.

12) Strengthen the connection to your children individually. In evolutionary terms offspring compete with one another to ensure their survival in times of scarce resources and danger. This is a deep seated instinct which a child does not fully understand. It is our role as parents to make our love so unambiguous that our children never wonder whether they might be loved less than another sibling. Make space for one-one-one time with your child and do something they want to do; Allow them an opportunity to tell you how they feel (limit behaviour but allow discussion of all feelings) and empathise; Show them affection and express your joy at being their parent; Perhaps most important of all, keep your promises (when you say you’ll look at something later it is important to follow up on it).

13) Foster sibling affection. Shift the focus from improving behaviour through punitive consequences to increasing the bond between them. The former may control behaviour but it doesn’t remove the desire to behave that way. Studies show that siblings who bicker moderately but show warmth have closer adult relationships than those children who bicker less but show little connection. Such ‘warmth’ may be encouraged by regular non-competitive experiences together.

14) If you have to punish don’t be selective. Allow them to see that the responsibility lies with both of them. Alternatively, when they are playing well together an indication that this is good and appreciated will highlight the benefit of such behaviour.

This feels like just the beginning of such an important discussion, but it is important to begin it. These early interactions within the family system are so important in setting up a sense of self worth and creating a blueprint of how to be in relationships for life.

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