We all know the scenario, you have finally wrangled the children through their early morning routines (perhaps with the help of my previous blog). They are out the door and headed for the car. You are about to step out of the door on the way to work and school when you hear the shrill, high-pitched whines that indicate that one child has missed out on getting the front seat of the car, again. It’s exhausting…and the day has hardly begun. So, do you leave it, and them, and take yourself off to work by bus – allowing the battle over perceived crime and unfairness to prevail? Or, do you step in with an over-riding command that instils terror and has all of the kids trembling quietly while they buckle themselves silently into the back seat?
Sadly, like all conflict, there is a continuum of extremity when it comes to sibling rivalry and aggression. Sibling conflict can be very violent and, concerningly, research now tells us that it is much less likely to be reported to authorities than other forms of violence or bullying amongst children.
Obviously, if the conflict between your children is violent, then you should always step in. If violence persists or begins to frequently recur, it’s very important that you seek help.
For lesser scale conflicts, though, there are more options on how you respond. A response is important and warranted. Sanctioning or letting the children sort conflict out completely by themselves can lead to problems because children can learn that bitter conflict is the norm and size, power and resources can be used in unhealthy ways to have a “win”. Researchers know that parents are more likely to leave it to the kids to sort it through when they are closer in age. This is a concern because we do know that exposure to sibling conflict and aggression is linked to poor mental health outcomes for kids.
Also keep in mind that, conversely, parents who step in to manage or settle all disputes between sibs are less likely to assist the children to learn how to do it for themselves. The children are more likely to always look to the adult to do it for them.
Siblings provide a great opportunity for learning about relationships and managing conflict – especially if they are helped to manage the situation with parents or carers who take these opportunities to coach or help in a child-centred kind of way. Coaching children when they are managing sibling conflicts has been found to be associated with better child well being.
I have often told the children that come to see me that their little brother or little sister has the special job of being annoying (and some are very good at their job) so that we can learn to cope with people problems in good ways.
According to university researchers, the sorts of rivalry and conflict that occurs can be different for the different gender of siblings.
When the conflict is brother to brother, the research is suggesting that we need to more often coach with an emphasis on increasing the warmth in the relationship. Sisters (including Charlie’s potential Angels) may more often require assistance with non-competitive strategies and brothers may tend to need additional help to learn non-aggressive problem solving.
When conflict between brothers and sisters, sisiters and sisters, or brothers and brothers arises, these are golden teaching or parenting moments. Take the opportunity when jealously arises to promote non-competitive views of the world and when there is a squabble over resources, encourage the children to problem solve to see if they can come up with a win-win scenario.
There’s also a need to play it fair when parenting. Make sure the measurable support you give your children isn’t piled higher on the scales for one child over the other. We now understand that any unfairness will hang with the child for life and can lead to problematic sibling relationships well into adulthood .
So, sibling “survival” skills are important, but in most lucky first world countries, social skills are more important than fight skills.
Charlie’s Angels learned their awesome self-defence skills from army and police training, not from beating each other up. Their coach and mentor, Charlie, did not step in all the time for his Angels – he phoned in from time to time, usually to congratulate them for behaviour that has reflected some moral high ground. Also, while we might have all had our favourites, Charlie got it fair and never favoured one Angel over the others and he always distributed their resources evenly. Charlie’s Angels could well have been siblings, but only if they were provided with the appropriate coaching and support to learn to manage interpersonal conflict early. Nice one, Charlie!