Karen Cain’s son was 13 when he said, “you only had her to make my life miserable!” He was talking about his then-four-year-old sister. “We were at Disneyland, and I told him ‘no’ to something he wanted to do, because his younger sister couldn’t do it,” Cain, a mom of three adult children and former teacher from Evergreen, remembers. “I thought it was hilarious.”
Hilarious, she says, because she and her husband had certainly not plotted their son’s future misery when they decided to have a third child. But as a stay-at-home-mom for many years, Cain admits that those years of sibling conflict were anything but hilarious. “I believe he would have killed his sisters during his teen years, if I hadn’t been around.”
Close in age or 10 years apart, or anything in between, it appears there is no ideal years-between-children or number of children when it comes to avoiding sibling rivalry. According to the book, Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (Norton, 2012), many parents report that the “perfect” child spacing others suggested had the opposite result in their own families: “You would think, having been young siblings ourselves, once, that we would all have known what to expect. Yet most of the parents…were as unprepared as I for the antagonism between children.” So, what’s behind that rivalry? And is there anything parents can do to help?
Behind The Rivalry
To help get in touch with the source of a child’s anger toward a sibling, Faber and Mazlish suggest that parents consider a pretend scenario: “Imagine that your spouse puts an arm around you and says, ‘Honey, I love you so much, and you’re so wonderful that I’ve decided to have another wife just like you.”
When the wife arrives and the three of you are out together, people say hello to you politely, but exclaim ecstatically of the newcomer. When the wife needs new clothing, the husband takes some from your closet. While the scenario captures only one perspective, you get the idea of how an older sibling might feel about a younger one.
“There are a lot of layers in sibling conflict,” says Cory Reid-Vanas, licensed marriage and family therapist at Rocky Mountain Counseling, Coaching & Consulting. “In theory, a sibling is your first peer relationship, and it’s an opportunity to begin to figure out how [to] navigate strong healthy relationships with neighbors, colleagues, and partners. Instead of a [sibling] problem, reframe it into an opportunity.”
Keeping that in mind, here are a few common “opportunities,” and ways to help understand and curtail sibling conflicts.
“The 12-year-old twins fight constantly about who gets the front seat or who gets to practice their instrument in the kitchen. They all four fight over who gets a haircut first, who gets to take a shower last (we have three showers), and who gets to sit where in the living room. It drives me insane!” —Susan, mom of four
“From an evolutionary perspective, when resources seem scarce, competition is likely to occur,” says Janine Rosche, lecturer in human development and family relations at the University of Colorado Denver, as well as a mom of four and the youngest of six siblings.
She has two sayings that she repeats to her children often, in hopes of lessening the negative aspects of competition: “Sometimes good things happen to others, not to us, and we should celebrate with them. Likewise, sometimes good things happen to us, not to others, and we need to be thankful, but not boastful.”
According to the book, Ending Sibling Rivalry (Beacon Hill Press, 2014) by parenting coach Sarah Hamaker, parents tend to put labels on their children, and that can stir up competition. She says these labels are one of the easiest mistakes into which parents can fall. She explains, in her chapter on competition:
“Competition heats up as each child campaigns hard in a war from one-upmanship. If Suzie the scholar brings home an A for a science project, then Billy the athlete better score a goal for his soccer team to stay in the race. When Walter the creative lands the lead in the school play, Julia the socializer feels compelled to win the student election at all costs. Family time becomes enmeshed in a constant battle to see who comes out on top by trying to excel in their chosen field. On the other side, the non-athletically labeled child forgoes any team or individual sport because she doesn’t want to compete with her athletically talented sister. Also, if one sibling doesn’t want to try at all, then the other brothers and sisters might follow suit to avoid standing out or showing up the sibling.”
To encourage healthy competition, Hamaker suggests that families should practice winning and losing. In her own home, she did this by starting a weekly family game time. “Besides enjoying time together, we keep an eye out for unsportsmanlike behavior both during and after the game, gently correcting improper responses to setbacks and victories,” according to the book. “We reinforce that in order to play, we must all be willing to win or lose—and to do both without gloating, teasing, or throwing a fit. This puts competition into its proper place and aids the children in developing a correct attitude about both losing and winning.”
“With one kid who has extra needs, I’m always afraid of shorting the other one and making her resentful.” —Jaclyn, mom of two
“[Resentment] might become apparent when families spend more time, money, or attention on one child’s interests over another’s. Sometimes, this is inevitable, such as in the case of a child’s special needs,” says Rosche. “The best thing a parent can do is intentionally spend time with and maintain relationships with the children who may not require or demand as much attention. Doing so might reduce the resentment someone may feel toward their sibling.”
Cain did this with her youngest daughter when she was in eighth grade. She scheduled a once-per-week early morning breakfast, which they continued all through high school. During their breakfasts, “the words would spill out,” Cain remembers.
Naomi Boylan-Campbell, a mom of four from Arvada, was concerned there might be resentment when her stepson came to live with the family last summer. “He has ADD, ODD, and dyslexia, so we knew that he would require extreme attention,” Boylan-Campbell says. “I prepped the girls on what was coming, and my stepson was also very open about it, too. We reminded the girls that they have been through a separation of family, and that now he has to go through that.” Boylan-Campbell believes that discussing these issues honestly has helped diffuse resentment.
Also, Boylan-Campbell has learned that when something personal was going on with one of her children, “someone was always in the other room calling out their opinion about the situation,” she says. “We now have private conversations that are between one parent and one child behind a closed door, with no siblings allowed, so the others aren’t giving their opinions.”
Damage To Self Image
“I’m concerned that their interactions will cause long-term issues with confidence and self image. If one sibling constantly criticizes the other, that can become a voice in the other one’s self-worth talk.” —Liz, mom of four
Siblings Without Rivalry contains countless examples of adults who were impacted negatively and into adulthood by their siblings. According to authors Faber and Mazlish: “It’s important to make a distinction between allowing feelings and allowing actions…We permit children to express their feelings. We don’t permit them to hurt each other. Our job is to show them how to express their anger without doing damage.” The authors recommend that parents start with the following:
- Identify the feeling. For example, when a child says, “She said I sound like a moron!” instead of telling the child to ignore it, say, “A comment like that could make you mad!”
- Express what the child might wish. When a child says, “I heard him laughing about me with his friends,” instead of saying something like, “That’s how they are when they get together,” try, “That hurt your feelings. You wish he’d show you more loyalty.”
- Encourage creative expression. When a sibling feels left out, suggest they draw you a picture or write a list of the things they are feeling rather than retaliating on a sibling.
- Show better ways to express anger. Instead of saying something like, “You’re a thief!” when a child takes a sibling’s things, encourage them to say something like “I expect you to keep your hands off my things.”
Experts acknowledge that all of this is really easy to say, but it’s hard to put into action, says Reid-Vanas. But, he says, remember that what is being role modeled to your kids—how you treat people—will have more influence than what you say.
“We are currently struggling with “the drift”—the younger one is suffering as he wants to play, and the older one has other things she’d rather be doing.” —Valorie, mom of two
Reid-Vanas experienced this with his own sibling as a child—his introverted brother withdrew from him, the extrovert, and he didn’t understand why. Though they are close as adults, it took an effort on both their parts. “What made the most impact is that we talked to each other, openly and honestly, along with respecting each other’s styles, needs, and strengths,” he says.
Faber and Mazlish recommend that parents “don’t get trapped by togetherness,” according to the book. “We suggest that if children are going through a period where there’s constant irritation between them, the parent ought not subject them to ‘togetherness.’ It could only serve to drive them further apart.” Instead, dad might take one child out while mom stays home with the other, or vice versa.
Another option is everyone goes to a certain place together, but splits up, and meets up at a certain time. Boylan-Campbell says this works well for her family, with different ages and interests. “We’ll all go skiing, but then meet up together at the end of the day,” she says. “And we always have dinner together. The teenagers are not always that open, but at dinner, it all comes out.”
To help prevent disconnect in the Cain family, they did a family night on Sundays, and a different family member got to pick the activity each time. “We’d make pizza, go to the arcade, go bowling, or sometimes have family cleaning days, and then go out for ice cream afterward,” says Cain. “Of course someone didn’t always want to do what someone else picked, but then that person got to pick every sixth time.”
Now at ages 37, 34, and 29, the Cain siblings are close. “I like that they call and talk with one another, and share things without us around, and care for one another’s pets,” Cain says. And that former miserable 13-year-old boy? He now calls on his little sister as a back-up babysitter for his own young children.
Cain doesn’t credit her kids’ closeness to one specific strategy; relationships are complicated. “I think that somewhere along the line you realize there are only a few people in the world that know your stories, and know why things are funny or sad,” Cain says. “We really pushed that there are only five of us who knew what it meant to be a ‘Cain.’ We support each other, and that is a non-negotiable.”
Will They Be Friends as Adults?
In research for this article, parents in urban, suburban, and rural areas alike reported that one of their greatest fears was that their children would not be close as adults.
Rosche sites four communication patterns that lead to the destruction of marital relationships, that are also common in adult sibling relationships, as identified by psychotherapist and author Dr. John Gottman. 1. Criticism (attacking one’s character); 2. Contempt (communicating disgust with the other person); 3. Defensiveness (unwillingness to take any personal blame); and 4. Stonewalling (turning away from conflict and the relationship). Here are some suggestions to help avoid these patterns.
- When conflict arises, focus on the problem, not the individual.
- Show respect even before conflict arises. This includes eye contact, active listening, and appropriate responses to invitations, questions, comments, stories, and jokes.
- Make routine contact. Keep up with each other through simple family breakfasts or dinners together.
- Don’t try to solve everything. “The parents’ responsibility is not to solve, but give their kids tools, strategies, and skills to support [them] to do it on their own,” says Reid-Vanas. “There are no guarantees for siblings to have close relationships, but if we give young people the tools for conflict management and communication skills, it will happen naturally.”
- Seek outside resources, and do the work. Reid-Vanas says that when siblings aren’t close as adults, “it’s because of historical events that haven’t been worked through.” Find a therapist, consult parents with older kids, or school counselors. Sometimes it’s easier to hear things from someone outside your situation.