Siblings Are Thrust Together In Families: Family Therapy Can Help With Rivalry And Conflict
Brothers and sisters are relationships unlike any other. From sharing bedrooms and bath time to family vacations, siblings are asked to spend tremendous amounts of time together, often with little or no choice in the matter. For parents, the decision to have children was likely thoughtful (or at least, volitional). However, siblings are thrust together.
Because of this, sibling rivalry and conflict are extremely common. There are unquestionably right ways and wrong ways for parents to intervene. Family therapy can be an enormously helpful way to assist parents in leading siblings out of conflict by assessing the ways in which a family may need to tweak their approach to set everyone on the right path.
Siblings Don’t Have To (Always) Get Along Or Even (Always) Like Each Other
Parents often make the entirely understandable mistake of assuming that because they love their children and because siblings are undeniably similar, siblings will inevitably get along. But, as anyone who has ever raised siblings (or had one) can attest, this isn’t always the case. Many parents demand that siblings get along, or overprotect younger siblings. They don’t allow space for the other (usually older) siblings’ negative feelings, and create more angst.
Helping parents tolerate the complicated reality of siblinghood is one important part of our job as family therapists. Parents absolutely need support and guidance to help lead their children toward having healthy relationships, even though they may not always like each other or get along.
We Help Families Manage And Tolerate Sibling Conflict (And To Know When To Do Which)
Sibling rivalry is an opportunity to teach children how to resolve conflict and ultimately, how to do this without needing their parents to intervene. This happens by validating the negative feelings that children can have toward each other, while letting them know that parents expect and believe they can work things out between them.
It is understandable for parents to need guidance in knowing when to tolerate or manage sibling conflict. This part of parenting isn’t always intuitive. Of course, if there is violence, a parent needs to step in and stop that. We also help parents that share responsibilities or families with multiple caregivers, such as grandparents, sitters, or nannies, get on the same page. A family therapist can give parents a script so they can coach others in the best way to deal with rivalry (consistency and calm are key!).
Sibling Rivalry Is Often Misunderstood: Fairness and Equality Aren’t The Same Thing
Many parents (and certainly brothers and sisters) mistakenly understand sibling rivalry as a question of equity. In this formulation, Johnny getting more than Sally is understood as a product of scarcity: there was a limited amount of ice cream/space in the backseat/time to cuddle. Therefore, minimizing rivalry-based conflict becomes about working hard to always distribute these resources equally.
While equity is rightly important to many parents, we believe this often misses a more meaningful point. Children, in reality, don’t need the same (amount or kind) of anything. Johnny may need extra help with math, and Sally might be really excited about Dad tagging along on a class trip. Any parent who’s tried to keep score or a balance sheet can tell you that this is a fruitless effort.
Alternatively, we help parents provide leadership in conversations about fairness, guiding children toward an understanding of wants and needs. Parents have an obligation to meet kids needs and negotiate their wants. While fairness matters, parents don’t have a primary obligation to meet needs and wants equally. We offer parents concrete tools, including literally changing the conversation (“I’m sorry you feel like Sally got more than you. Let’s talk about what you need from me and how I can try to give that to you” or “I’m sorry you feel Johnny got more than you. I think, though, that what we need to talk about is how disappointed you are, and how frustrating it is when you don’t get what you want”).
Sibling Rivalry May Be About More Than Meets The Eye
It’s also often the case that issues of sibling rivalry are a displacement from other needs. There’s a “what’s really going on” type of question that can be obscured by an attempt to make things equal. So, for example, Johnny’s tantrum about Sally getting more ice cream might be about something else altogether, whether missing Mom now that she’s gone back to work, the new third grade teacher that’s being especially unkind, or some challenges making friends.
As in all of our work with parents, we help them look at the messages from their kids, including those related to sibling rivalry, as perhaps more than what meets the eye.
Parents Bring Their Own Childhood Experience With Siblings To Parenting
A lot can get triggered for parents when they see their children fighting. Parents bring their own childhood experiences with siblings to parenting. Parents tend to connect deeply with the child who is in the same sibling order as they are, and parenting becomes led by that rather than what the children need. We help parents reconnect with what their life was like with siblings, how their parents handled it, and what their relationship with siblings as adults looks like.
Parents’ identification with siblings in conflict is sometimes helpful and sometimes not in the practice of parenting. In family therapy, we can identify, perhaps with the whole crew present, that parents are making decisions that are overly informed by their own childhood experience with siblings, and the ways their parents responded poorly. We can continue the conversation with one or both parents separately, exploring that more deeply, while giving specific direction on how to course-correct (and manage associated feelings). Children may need help tolerating this change in leadership, and we support parents to acknowledge the mistake, the change and the ways that it’s hard for the kids. We also help parents iterate their leadership to optimize and adjust as the family’s needs change.