Fourteen-year old Meg Ungar and her brother Scott are watching television. Meg picks up the remote and starts changing the channel. Scott,16, asks her to stop. Meg doesn’t. Dad hears the conflict from the other room and asks them to solve it on their own. But within seconds, Scott has escalated the disagreement by hitting and pushing Meg, and the tears begin.
“When I come in it looks like she’s the victim,” says Michael Ungar, a professor in the social work department at Halifax’s Dalhousie University and a noted child behaviour expert. “And then my son says, ‘You never blame her for anything’ and in a way right, he’s right. I may have set him up by not coming in sooner, or seeing that my very sweet little girl may be twisting her older brother around. “Sometimes, I don’t think I hear his side of the story because he is bigger, older, and the boy. I hate to admit it, but it’s true,” he adds. From the moment they enter our lives, brothers and sisters become our playmates and protectors, our role models and our sources of envy. Scott and Meg are no exception, says Michael. Their dynamic has been like that practically since Meg was born. According to a Penn State University study, by the time children are 11, they spend about 33 percent of their free time with their siblings – more time than with friends, parents, teachers or even by themselves. All that proximity can stir up a potent brew of friction, or sibling rivalry – the jealousy, competition and fighting that occurs between siblings and can drive parents mad.
The good news, according to experts, is that kids are highly motivated to have close, loving relationships within the family. Given the right guidance and tools, they can learn valuable lessons from their siblings about how to co-operate, resolve problems and develop empathy. Just what sort of guidance? Contrary to popular belief, sibling rivalry does not have to be accepted as normal, and it’s good for parents to step in to help. What is normal is that siblings will squabble and experience jealousy. Conflict occurs in almost every important relationship. Siblings are the people children spend the most time with, live closest too and above all compete with for their parents’ love and attention. With siblings around, the exclusive love of their parents must be shared.
Parents can step in
Hildy Ross, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo, has witnessed the positive effects of parental mediation. Children whose parents received formal mediation training and used it during a sibling conflict were not only more aware of how siblings felt during a conflict, but also better understood why the fight took place compared to those children whose parents had not received training. In one part of the study, children were shown illustrated sibling conflict scenarios. In each scenario a brother and a sister have valid perspectives on who was responsible for the dispute.
For example, in one story John and Maggie are told by their mother to tidy up their toys and she will take them to the park. John has built a tall block tower. He is proud of it and doesn’t put it away. However, Maggie tidies up his blocks and some harsh words are exchanged. Following that scenario, children in the study were asked who each sibling in the story would blame and why, why they disagreed, and to explain whether or not it made sense that the children had different ideas of who was to blame. The stories were designed so that it would be reasonable for each child to blame the other (John could blame Maggie for destroying his tower, whereas Maggie’s perspective is justified by their mother’s instructions).
“Children’s perspective-taking skills improve when they are made aware of others’ perspectives during disputes and are asked to consider others’ interests in the resolution process,” says Hildy. To study the effects of parental mediation on sibling conflict, Hildy had parents with children between the ages of five and 10
sit with their children following a conflict. After setting some ground rules (such as no yelling or name calling), and allowing each child to tell his or her side of the story, the parent then summarized the issue, which could range from anger over a sibling entering a bedroom without asking to who changes the TV channel. “Quite often they don’t agree with what the issue is,” says Hildy. “This way they know what the problem is they are going to solve.” To build empathy and minimize misunderstanding, the parent had each child repeat what their sibling said and then summarized and labelled feelings. Finally, the parent had the siblings develop solutions and offered help if needed. For example, a solution might be: asking permission before going into a sibling’s room. “The whole mediation process can take less than 10 minutes,” says Hildy.
Don’t Take Over
The key word here is mediation, not meddling. Problems arise when parents try to solve their kids’ conflicts. “There’s a tendency for parents to come up with a solution,” says Michael Ungar. Hildy says that parents can have a positive influence if they intervene in a constructive way. The idea is that parents facilitate communication and negotiation between siblings, but leave the final decision-making power with their kids rather than dictating how disputes should be resolved. Her research showed that parental mediations usually produced compromises, whereas parents’ normal interventions (solving problems without their kids help) resulted more often in win/lose scenarios or with conflicts remaining unresolved.
“Don’t we want our children to be arguing when they’re young? Where else are they going to learn to compromise?” says Michael. “Siblings and cousins are a safe place for your child to practise and figure out complex, interpersonal relationships. Kids are rehearsing for life.”
When To Seek Help
Small squabbles and disagreements between siblings are normal, says Nina Woulff, a Halifax-based psychologist. But intense fighting and aggression are not. “When I see conflict between children I always think ‘why?’ It is not inevitable. In other cultures you see terrific cooperation and caring between siblings.” If conflict or aggression between siblings increases, it is time for parents to investigate. “Put on your detective hat and ask ‘what is going on here? Why is my child doing this?’ If you can’t figure it out, consult a family therapist or a child mental health specialist.”
Nip Rivalry In The Bud
Parents can do a lot to help their kids get along better:
- Be good role models and use conflict resolution skills within the household.
play favourites or hold up one child as the role model for the others.
Enjoy and respect each child’s individuality without pigeonholing or
labelling them. “Let them be who they are,” says Michael. And try not to
compare one child to another by saying things like, “Your brother gets
good grades in math – why can’t you?”
- Don’t obsess over
equality. “Being fair is not the same as being equal. It’s more about
equity,” says Michael. “Everyone gets what they need, but it doesn’t
have to be the same thing.” Due to their different ages, siblings often
have different privileges and responsibilities. If children understand
that this inequality is because one child is older, they tend to accept
it and see it as fair.
- Make sure that each child has enough time
and space for themselves to do fun things together as a family. Not
only will they share good experiences, but those fun times will act as a
buffer when they come into conflict again. It’s always easier to work
out conflicts with someone with whom you share happy memories.
siblings become best friends is dependent on many factors, including
temperament and personality, but one thing is certain, says Michael. In
families where a mutual empathy exists between siblings, a crucial
lesson has been learned: Your best interest is my best interest.
Michael Perlman, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of
Toronto, has studied sibling conflict in children under the age of six. He gives the following advice to parents:
Give young children clear rules and direction. For example, if siblings
fight over a toy, a parent can set a rule that one child play with a
toy for two minutes and then it is their sibling’s turn. The important
thing is to resolve the conflict quickly. “If conflict is not resolved,
kids will have fewer and fewer positive interactions [with their
siblings]. Once they have the skills to fight in a more constructive way
parents can back off.”
Blame the toy. Put
a toy into timeout if it creates a conflict. Make a schedule for Whose
Turn is it Anyway? If arguing erupts over who gets first choice of
bedtime stories or a favourite seat in the car, assign certain days of
the week to make these choices.
Put up collateral.
If borrowing is a problem, as it often is with teens and pre-teens, the
child who borrows something from a brother or sister can be asked to
put up collateral – a possession that will be returned only when the
borrowed item is returned.
Halifax writer Allison Lawlor no longer fights with her younger sister.