Solving Sibling Strife

23rd February 2018

It’s perfectly normal for brothers and sisters to squabble, but it can have a negative impact on family life and be distressing for everyone involved. Lisa Botwright explores practical strategies for promoting kinship kindness…

‘Hair ripped out and left in clumps like tumbleweed on the kitchen floor. A snail, stamped on in malice because Fiona had adopted it as a pet. After 16 years of sharing a house with my warring son and daughter, I couldn’t wait for my son to leave home,’ writes The Guardian’s Julie Sinclair.

This is an extreme example, certainly – and one probably best shared with a sympathetic family counsellor than with a national audience – but it illustrates the frustration and exhaustion parents feel when their children simply don’t get on.

“I had another child because I wanted Christie to have a sister,” laments one mother, anonymously. “Well, now she has her sister, someone to play with, a friend for life –and she hates her. All she wants to do is ‘send her back’.”

Mumsnet is full of similar stories. “My older daughter is seven and my younger one is four. At home, they argue nonstop and hit each other,” says one mother. “It’s not how I imagined family life. Is this normal?” she asks, with not a little hint of desperation.

“Conflict is absolutely normal in families,” parenting expert Elaine Halligan tells me. “It’s normal in any close relationship when there are people with different needs and perspectives.” Elaine is Director of The Parent Practice, and runs workshops ‘that enable parents to bring out the best in their children’ – with squabbling siblings, unsurprisingly, a big topic of concern. “Every parent knows that children don’t come with an instruction manual, and yet so many feel that they should instinctively know how to raise a calm, happy and thriving family,” says Elaine. “Being open to learning parenting skills strengthens our natural abilities and equips us with valuable new understanding, helping us connect more profoundly with our children.” 

That’s all very well, but staying calm and teaching youngsters strategies for managing conflict in ways that bring them closer is easier said than done when emotions are running high and tempers are frayed.

“Children crave their parents’ attention,” Elaine explains. “Whatever behaviour parents pay attention to they get more of. When our children are getting on well we don’t even notice it and just get on with our own lives, but we give plenty of attention when they start fighting!”

This means lavishing praise on our children for good behaviour, however much it may feel we’re grappling round for positive instances. (‘I’m pleased you used words to tell your brother how mad you are, but you didn’t hurt him.’) Rather than offering vague encouragement, use descriptive praise that singles out objective examples. “I know that you wanted to play Lego all by yourself, but it was really nice of you to give Maya some of your spare bricks,” will do the trick better than, “Well done for playing nicely.”

But when the fighting does escalate, hold back from that instinct to jump in and arbitrate. ‘Children should have the freedom to resolve their own differences,’ write Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, co-authors of Siblings Without Rivalry. According to these parenting experts, we should ‘express faith in the children’s ability to work out a mutually agreeable solution’ and then – although this might be the hardest part – leave the room. Of course, if things are turning violent or out of hand, then it’s wise to separate them to cool down. “If one child is being abused by the other, either physically or verbally, then we’ve got to step in,” the pair concede. “Children are entitled to adult intervention when necessary.” But if we do step in, it’s as a ‘conflict resolution coach’, helping the children to articulate their feeling of anger of frustration towards each other, and then guiding them towards a peaceful resolution. (‘Aarav, I can see that Ishaan made you angry when he snatched your book out of your hand. Ishaan, tell Aarav how you felt when he was ignoring you.’) According to Faber and Mazlish, “We intervene, not for the purpose of settling their argument or making a judgement, but to open the blocked channels of communication so they can get back to dealing with each other.”

Jenny Brown, Head of St Albans High School for Girls, believes strongly in the importance of fostering emotional intelligence and empowering children with the tools to deal with conflict themselves. “In school, we remember that fallings-out are normal, and keep an adult perspective. We encourage peer support.” She explains that younger girls can turn to older girls for friendship advice and that she’s always so impressed with the eloquence of the advice given. Jenny Brown describes herself as ‘amazingly close’ to her twin sister, Jane Lunnon, Head of another prestigious girls’ school, Wimbledon High. Jane has gone on record as saying, ‘as kids we’d get on brilliantly until we’d lose it, then it was the Third World War’. Of their parents, Jenny believes, “There is a straight line between the independence we were given as kids and the people we became.” She appreciates the space she was given growing up, and that her parents “didn’t take things too seriously, which at times felt like an affront; however, they always listened.”

But what happens when arguments are more than just sibling spats and take a darker, more ominous turn? Just like Julie Sinclair, parents can be sometimes horrified at the level of hatred and nastiness displayed. A mumbled ‘I wish the baby had never been born,’ will send chills down the spine of any mother or father.

Elaine counsels that part of teaching empathy means acknowledging how your child is feeling, and helping them to process, rather than bottle up, those feelings. We shouldn’t say, “of course you don’t hate your sister,” but “I’m glad you were brave enough to tell me.”

One mother tells me how ‘naughty’ her eldest son Marcus became after his brother was born. “I was tired, and couldn’t stop myself from shouting at him to leave his brother alone. One day, I left the youngest with a babysitter and took Marcus out for the day. When we were alone in the car, I asked him how he felt about sharing everything with his new brother – his room, his toys, even me. After looking at me sideways, as if to gauge my response, he started to open up – and although after a while I felt very uncomfortable, he was saying such hateful things! – we talked through his grievances. That night, I overheard him reading the baby a bedtime story, and he was just being so sweet to him.” As Faber and Mazlish profess, it seems ‘insisting on good feelings leads to bad feelings. Allowing for bad feelings leads to good feelings.’

Carving out alone-time with each child will help to dissipate those niggling feelings of resentment and jealousy. Siblings are surprisingly amenable to this, providing they recognise that the same boundaries are reciprocated. It doesn’t need to be whole days out, even ten minutes a day is helpful. “Many parents use staggered bedtimes as as opportunity for one-to-one time with each child,” suggests Elaine.

And although we sometimes get in a tailspin about treating each child equally, it’s okay to parent differently according to need – (‘I’ve bought a new watch for you, Ben: you didn’t need one, Sasha’; or ‘Betty’s had a terrible day at school, so she needs extra cuddles just now’) – and even to love them differently… Children need to hear why they’re special to us, so find unique things to celebrate. ‘I’m proud of the way you tell a story so well, Summer’ and ‘I love the way you give me a big hug when you see me, Sidney’.

‘To be loved equally is somehow to be loved less. To be loved uniquely – for one’s own special self – is to be loved as much as we need to be loved,’ assert Faber and Mazlish eloquently.

Allowing each child the space to be themselves may also require helping them carve out their own personal boundaries. Sharing, for example, may not always be appropriate. Allocate each child a special place for new or sentimental possessions. ‘Forced sharing undermines goodwill,’ insists Elaine.

Finally, relax. You may feel you’re banging your head against a brick wall, but the chances are your family values – along with all those lectures on tolerance and kindness – are nonetheless sinking in.

Jenny Brown laughs as she tells me about an argument she had with her sister when they were about ten. “We went to a Catholic primary school, and were away on our first residential school trip. One day, we were fighting in our bedroom –physically fighting, which was very rare, so it must have been serious. A nun burst into the room and told us we were very ill-behaved, that we ‘must have been very badly brought up’. In the face of this outrageous slur we immediately forgot why we were arguing, and got on brilliantly for the rest of the holiday.”

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