Do any of you remember or have you ever heard of the Smothers Brothers?  They were two brothers who had a comedy/variety show on TV in the ‘60”s.  They had a recurring bit in which one brother said to the other, “Mother always loved you best”. I often think of this line when mothers express their concerns to me about the relationship between their children.

There is probably no question mothers have asked me about more often than what to do about the behavior of one sibling towards another.  Usually, it is the older child’s treatment of the younger child.  But at times, it is also about the younger child’s provocative behavior toward the older one.  The older child pushes or hits the younger one “for no reason”.  The younger child annoys the older one when she is doing something, or takes her things.

What is interesting  is that even when mothers describe “bad” behavior, they insist that the children really love each other, and that is what makes the behavior seem worse.  When I ask a mother about her relationship with her own siblings, I usually hear  one of two things: that the relationship was and is so close that she wants her own children to have the same experience.  Or, on the other hand that she and her sister/brother had a terrible relationship, and she doesn’t want that repeated.  In either case, mothers seem invested in having children love each other.

In talking about sibling relationships, another feeling I have often heard expressed is guilt toward the first child for having had a second.  A young child I knew told me that his parents told him the reason they had his brother was because he was so wonderful they wanted another.  He said he never believed them because if he was so wonderful why did they need another one!  Like this little boy, parents sometimes feel that having a second child was a betrayal of the first.  They worry about what they are afraid they are not doing with or for the firstborn because of the younger child.  Or the opposite, that perhaps they are cheating the younger child because of their extra attention to the first.

Are these different feelings parents have connected in some way to the behavior of children towards each other?  Perhaps they contribute, in part, to the upset and worry mothers have about this behavior.  People talk matter-of-factly and with seeming acceptance of “sibling rivalry”.  But when such rivalry is actually expressed in words or actions, the parents’ reaction is often as though something inexplicable is going on – something of a more serious nature.

Of course bickering and children picking on each other is annoying.  And at times we have to intervene physically to keep one child from hurting another.  We would just like it to stop. But also, as with other kinds of behavior we don’t like, it is helpful to think about what it means.  Although the Smothers Brothers used it as a joke, the fact is that children compete to be the favored one, to get the most attention from Mom and Dad. That is what the rivalry is about.

Parents often defend themselves and want to prove how much attention they actually do give a particular child.  It is understandable that one might feel indignant when a child acts up for attention when you have just spent two hours doing something special together.   But the feelings of children have little to do with reality (most of the time.)  They would like you to be available 24/7 – on call, as it were, if they want or think they need you.  If you’ve just spent such a nice time together without his annoying little sister, why does it have to end?

The point is that children don’t either love or hate their siblings – they do both. And they express their anger or hostile feelings through their behavior.  We can help them with negative behavior only if we accept that there is nothing bad about the feeling.  If we reproach or punish them for the behavior without acknowledging and accepting the feeling behind it, the message they get is that the feeling, too, is bad.  Yet feelings are acceptable – it’s the behavior that is not.

This means that it is not acceptable to hit your little brother even when you hate him.  But children often need help in controlling their impulses when they are angry.  If one child is having particular difficulty, he can be told that it is too hard for him to be with his brother at that time – but then he needs help from you to be taken out of the situation and become focused on something else.  

It is so easy to fall into a pattern of seeing the younger child as the victim and the older one as the aggressor.  If one child is comforted and the other scolded or punished,  the anger and rivalry is intensified and reinforced.   In fact, the younger child is not always the innocent victim.  Even so, just as he may need comforting, the older child needs your understanding and help.

Your children may gang up on you at times when it serves their purposes. That’s one of the advantages of having siblings.  But save your breath and don’t try to prove it’s not true that “mother loves your brother best”.  That never works.