What is it about sibling rivalry that bothers us so? Is it because we parents feel caught in the middle, asked to choose a “winner” from two people we love completely? Maybe. But maybe it’s because the way siblings fight is disturbing.
A new study shows that conflict with friends is less intense than conflict with a younger brother or sister. Siblings fight with no holds barred.
About 100 children, one-third each who were seven, eleven or sixteen years old and all with a younger sibling, were asked to describe conflicts they’d had with friends and also conflicts they’d had with a sibling. There were definite differences.
Conflicts with friends tended to be unintentional misunderstandings. The friend felt hurt or mistreated and the child was regretful and tried to make things up. But conflicts with siblings were different. These involved purposive injury, insults and sabotage intended to put a sibling in her place and establish dominance over her.
Yipes! No wonder sibling rivalry seems vicious. In the study, older children did express remorse for being so mean and, in fact, the treatment of friends and siblings reported by the oldest children was more similar. But the seven-year-olds were less likely to express remorse or to imagine the suffering they had caused a sibling, even though they could imagine the hurt felt by a friend.
What’s a parent to do?
First, recognize that sibling rivalry, while an inevitable part of childhood, is hurtful and even intentionally hurtful. It’s serious stuff that shouldn’t be ignored.
Second, your role is less one of deciding who is right and who is wrong than it is teaching conflict resolution skills. Instead of playing referee, play mediator. Help the kids resolve their issues.
Third, put a stop to bullying behavior. Children who practice name-calling, deliberately breaking or taking toys, and threatened or actual violence are practicing skills that are not okay anywhere and certainly not within the family. Everyone in your household should feel safe and respected.
Fourth, pay attention to your own interactions. Nothing in this study indicated that sibling rivalry was caused by parents’ own harsh treatment of their children, but certainly kids look up to mom and dad as role models. Be certain to model what you want to see.
Even though this study implies that children “outgrow” sibling rivalry and mellow in their relationships as they grow older, it’s likely that the hurts linger. Tellingly the study didn’t interview the sibling victims. So take this seriously. Your home life will be more serene and your children sweeter if you do.
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.