Sibling relationships are often governed by strong emotions of love, hatred, jealousy, and trust. Fighting and arguments are a central part of daily life, with competitive attitudes and physical battles playing a leading role in children’s various activities.
Though it might not seem like it, these arguments and physical combats are vital in the communication of feelings and understanding among siblings. They teach children how to cope with emotional surges, as well as the arts of negotiation and compromise. The fighting that siblings often engage in is a learning environment in which children learn, at a young age, the social and communicative basis which will prove useful throughout their lives.
The significance of these sibling rivalries changes, however, when these oppositions bring to the surface deeper dysfunctional problems within the family.
Often, parents try to avoid sibling fights and do not allow emotions of conflict to come to the surface. This pattern of parenting is often due to the parents’ childhood trauma of fighting within their home. The emotional pain that intra-family conflict caused them as children stays with them in their adult age and guides the parenting they provide for their children. These parents cannot bear to relive the tension and are overcome by anger when sibling rivalry and physical combat arise.
Living in an environment in which children cannot freely express their emotions causes siblings to seek out secretive ways to relieve the buildup of aggressive feelings. These secret displays of aggression, occurring when parents are not present, can cause play time to be extremely dangerous and unhealthy. Parents do not witness the conflict and are not aware of the fact that it has gotten out of control. They treat it as mere “playing around” or a “phase” which will fade as the children grow older. Children, however, do not overcome these emotions since they do not freely express them, leading to conflict within the child and feelings of guilt for the negative feelings he or she is experiencing.
Display of Affection
Another source of conflict among siblings is the care of the parents. Children are in constant battle for their parents’ love and affection and when feeling the lack of these, they experience stress, and uncertainty which they release as physical and verbal attacks on the easiest target: their brother or sister.
Starting at the age of 15 to 17 months, children attentively observe the relationship their parents share with their siblings. The stronger the difference in care and affection they sense, the greater their aggression towards their siblings.
In the ideal family situation, each child is rewarded for different aspects of their individual personalities and achievements so as to never have one child live under the shadow of a sibling. Parents can often sense a lack of balance in these situations and try to correct it. When this restoration of the balance doesn’t occur, children find themselves trapped in stereotypical titles like “naughty”, “nice”, “good”, and “bad”. This feeling of inability to change their title causes even more conflict and friction among siblings.
Rivalry and feelings of aggression mirror the relationship the parents have as a couple. Children observe and copy the lifestyle of their parents and tend to mimic their arguments. They often turn to their siblings for comfort, and refuge during their parents’ fighting and the presence of tension within the household. A relationship of distrust and detestation between the parents can lead to an equally tension-based relationship among siblings.
When to Worry
Jealousy and competition among siblings is normal and, more often than not, the feelings never quite seize to exist. Parents should start worrying when tensions and periods of aggression are long lasting and the children cannot calm down. Another red flag is the display of revengeful emotions hours or days after the fight, as well as secretly aggressive behaviors when parents are not present. Competition among siblings has gone too far when physical attacks become dangerous and insults exceed the playful level and threaten the child’s self esteem. In these situations parents should intervene and be very stern, especially when the safety of playtime is in question. A situation in which parents are scared to let their children play with each other is proof of an unhealthy level of jealousy and competitive feelings among the siblings.
Gender and Age Differences
Fighting and arguments usually take place among siblings of the same gender and small age differences, the reason being that children have more in common and more to compete about. They share the same needs, privileges, and responsibilities.
Relationships between sisters are usually better while brothers tend to be more competitive and hostile. Other family situations amplify feelings of jealousy and competition. For example, placing the responsibility of a younger sibling onto an older one may create feelings of rivalry and abhorrence which can stay with them and affect their relationship as adults.
How Should Parents React?
Make sure to not make a habit out of intervening only to stop a fight, so as to not encourage the feeling that the only way to get attention is by fighting.
The most important thing to remember when raising a child is that their main method for learning is mimicry. Do not expect a child to handle his or her anger better than you do. It is crucial that you lead by example, otherwise children will get confused if you demand a certain kind of behavior that they have not witnessed in the home.
There are acceptable ways to express anger, disappointment, jealousy, and other negative feelings and it is your duty as a parent to teach them those ways. Keeping emotions bottled up is not healthy and children need an outlet other than fighting. You need to explain that negative feelings, themselves, are not bad or something to be ashamed of, the destructive actions that these feelings may bring, however, are.
In the Midst of Conflict
It is important to not run to the rescue right when a fight breaks out, but rather to wait and see if the children can work it out on their own.
When violence breaks out, and attacks are either physical or verbal, it is time to intervene and allow for the children to calmly express their opposing points of view.
This is not the right time for a life lesson, and parents should refrain from lecturing. The most effective thing to do is to look for a solution to the conflict based on compromise and communication.
Finally, leave the children with a reminder of the terms for their compromise and the warning of a certain disciplinary measure which will follow if the fighting continues.
Staying true to your word about any consequences is crucial!
A Priceless Relationship
The relationship siblings share is valuable and will accompany them to old age. The experiences and communication they share will anchor and support them during the tough times throughout their lives. A sibling is not only an outlet for build up anger and frustration, but also an emotional and spiritual shelter.
When disappointment and old age strike, everyone seeks a safe harbor, a loving relationship that comes without trying and is based on total honesty. Parents should allow their children to build upon this priceless relationship which will accompany them way beyond their childhood years.