Good News About Fighting Sibs

Kids on beach

By Dr. Laura Markham

I wasn’t prepared for my son’s reaction when his little sister was born. At four, he’s had only a few tantrums in his entire life. But when the baby appeared, he seemed to panic. He was clingy, he was angry, he was scared. I was trained as a psychologist, but I was out of my league.

Like me, most parents look forward to the awe on our older child’s face as he or she gazes for the first time at our newborn. We imagine the baby laughing as her big brother entertains her with funny faces. When one child gets hurt, the other will repay the care he’s received from us, offering his sibling a hug and a blankie. Over time, romping through the sprinkler will give way to bike rides and camping out, which will give way to arguing over who gets the car on Saturday night and consoling each other over lost games and broken hearts They might head their separate ways after high school, but that bond will continue through all the ups and downs of adulthood. We want to believe we’re giving our children a priceless gift: a friend for life.

But sometime in the first year—maybe even before the baby arrives—most parents begin to realize things may be quite so simple, as I hear from the families I coach:

“She loves her brother…In fact, she hugs him so hard that it scares us…Her hands always seem to end up around his neck.”

“I can’t even drive the car safely because they can’t keep their hands off each other.”

“He really pushed me to my limit when I came out of the shower and he had peed on his nine-month-old brother!”

There’s no way around it. Sibling rivalry is universal. After all, every human is genetically programmed to protect resources that will help him survive, and your children depend on and compete for what are, in fact, precious resources—your time and attention. Even when there’s plenty of love to go around, young humans haven’t developed much impulse control, so they’re bound to get into conflicts. Finally, temperament colors every relationship. Children who tend to be challenging will be even more challenging when you introduce a brother or a sister, and some siblings simply clash.

Unfortunately, many parents don’t know how to help their children with these strong emotions, so hurt feelings can lead to aggressive acts, which can spiral into negative patterns of interacting with each other. Those feelings can set the tone in a sibling relationship right through the teen years, and even have a way of popping up at family stress points across a lifetime.

But there’s good news, too. The sibling relationship is where the rough edges of our early self-centeredness are smoothed off, and where we learn to manage our most difficult emotions. Siblings often become good friends, and because they know each other so well, they can provide each other a deep sense of comfort. Even siblings who fight a lot usually do gain respect for each other and eventually get along. When they’re grown, may siblings feel a deep connection to the only other people who understand what it was like to grow up in their home.

And here’s the best news of all. Parents can make a tremendous difference in shaping the sibling relationship. Sibling jealousy is unavoidable, but it’s almost always possible to help children develop a strong, positive bond that trumps the natural jealousy. It’s not always easy to raise siblings who appreciate each other, who become friends for life—but a committed parent can make all the difference.

Excerpted from Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings by Dr. Laura Markham. (c) 2015 Dr. Laura Markham. Perigee, Penguin Group USA, Penguin Random House.

Photograph by Daria Nepreikhin via Unsplash.com