Feelings between siblings are often very intense and evoke strong feelings from parents as well. When reported by a parent, the conflicts and emotions can sound almost biblical, like Cain and Abel, and one can imagine the child who receives the parent’s angry reproach wanting to ask, “Am I my brother’s/sister’s keeper?”
A mother who raised concern about her three-year-old son’s constant attack on his fifteen-month-old sister could not understand why he would do this. Explaining that she had no siblings and had no experience with the kind of feelings that would elicit such attacks, she was bewildered by his behavior because it seemed unprovoked by anything the younger child did.
It was a new idea to this mother that the boy’s behavior was not related to anything specific the younger one did, but rather to the fact of her existence. The behavior in question related to the mother – not to the sibling. I thought of a child I worked with who said he never believed his parents when they told him they wanted another child because he was so wonderful – if he was so wonderful why did they need another one?
In this instance, the mother was away at work during the day and when she returned home her son wanted her sole attention. She described that it was difficult for her to attend to both children at the same time – two can seem more than twice as many as one when it comes to children wanting attention. 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 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. The difference in developmental stages of two siblings can make for challenges in management as each may interfere in the interests of the other.
In this situation, the mother’s difficulty was compounded by her worry that the child’s behavior meant that something was profoundly wrong with him. At the same time, she indicated with pride that her daughter was quite sturdy and was starting to push back when attacked.
It is a challenge to help 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. A major task for us as parents is to accept the negative feelings that children have for each other. We protect our children from hurting each other physically, but need to give recognition to their feelings while letting them know that their feelings do not make them bad.
In light of this mother’s worry about her son’s behavior, it was interesting to learn from a teacher at the school the boy attends that when the caregiver arrives with the younger sister to pick him up, he is completely solicitous of her and appears devoted. It seems clear that it is the mother’s arrival on the scene at home that triggers the boys aggression.
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.