Recently, I came across a personal reminiscence someone wrote about her relationship with her two male siblings. She recounts being asked at a function they all attended what the secret was of their close attachment to one another, which the guest hoped to achieve with her own children. Her brother responded both seriously and with tongue-in-cheek, that the secret was the bitter divorce of their parents.
Although the response was hardly what the inquirer expected, the question itself is a familiar one. Over the years, I have heard that question raised by many parents. It often is expressed in relation to the expected arrival of a sibling and more often in connection with concerns about sibling behavior.
The creation of a new family of siblings with oneself as the parent, arouses many feelings about one’s own history with one’s sibling – both positive and negative. Parents may hold up their own sibling relationships as a model they seek to achieve, or the opposite, describing terrible feelings and behavior they would like to avoid.
Parents locked in hostile battle is certainly not the solution new parents are seeking. Yet, at the same time, it may come as a surprise to recognize that often sibling behavior is more about them than about the sibling themselves. After all, sibling rivalry means rivalry between siblings for the love and/or attention of their parents.
We think of siblings as meaning children having the same parents. But in fact, every child’s experience growing up is different from that of his or her sibling. Listening to the conversation of adult siblings, it is striking how often they remember family experiences in different ways, as if not having had the same experience. And in fact, they haven’t.
The expression of feelings of rivalry can be most acute with the arrival of the first sibling. The first child, having been the king or queen of the manor, is suddenly seemingly dethroned by one perceived as an interloper. It is not surprising to hear some of the things that children say about new babies, such as instructing parents to take the baby back to the hospital, or better yet to be thrown out with the garbage.
At times, parents may be distressed by these comments and try to persuade a child that these are not true feelings. Such expression may run counter to an image I often hear from parents that a child can’t wait for his new brother or sister’s arrival and is more than accepting of the idea. In fact, many mothers in particular, are more in tune with the feeling that they are usurping the place of the firstborn with a sibling and express guilt about doing that. It is as though they are betraying the first child by having a second.
The point is that our behavior toward our children’s sibling behavior, is very much influenced by our own family history, and the feelings elicited by the treatment of one child toward another. At times, it may be difficult not to feel protective of a younger child and view the older one as the aggressor, even though little ones can often be most provocative.
The difference in developmental stages of two siblings can make for challenges in management as each may interfere in the interests of the other. More challenging still, is helping children deal with a major task of the early years, which is to learn to distinguish between feelings and behavior, to accept the feelings but control the unacceptable behavior.
That is why a major task for us as parents is to accept the negative feelings that children have for each other at various times. Of course, we protect our children from hurting each other physically, but that doesn’t mean their feelings are wrong, or that they are somehow bad for having such feelings.
It is pointless to try to respond to children’s requests that they be loved most or best, or to quantify feelings of love for each child. The truth of the matter is that a family encompasses different relationships, with different feelings at different times, and that part of the benefit of being in a family is learning how to accept that reality. Much of sibling behavior is a reflection of the difficulty in learning.
We can best help children learn when we accept that reality ourselves.