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Beyond Sibling Rivalry

Understanding the Dynamics of Your Children's Relationship

For many people, the sibling bond is complex, fraught with both deep love and intense conflict. No one else understands you in quite the same way. Who else understands what you mean when you talk about the way Dad looked when he was angry or the time the family trip started out with a flat tire on the highway or what it felt like to celebrate Thanksgiving together?

By Marjorie Howard


"Certainly there are times when kids feel rivalry or feel a sibling is interfering with their goals. The term 'sibling relationships' opens the door to more positive knowledge, but sibling rivalry grabs people's attention."
- Laurie Kramer (Sibling relationship researcher)

Parents combine good intentions with genuine apprehension when they consider bringing a second or subsequent child into the family. They often say they want their children to be lifelong friends and companions, and yet they know from experience - their own or someone else's - how hard it can be for siblings to get along.

The longest relationship most people have in their lives is with their brothers and sisters. For many people, the sibling bond is complex, fraught with both deep love and intense conflict. No one else understands you in quite the same way. Who else understands what you mean when you talk about the way Dad looked when he was angry or the time the family trip started out with a flat tire on the highway or what it felt like to celebrate Thanksgiving together?

And while frequent conflict within sibling relationships may be a near-universal characteristic, little research has been conducted about sibling dynamics. Susan McHale, a professor of human development at Penn State University, has researched and written extensively on family relationships. She says sibling relationships are a central phenomenon in families.

"Often what parents are told is as if nobody else is around: Here's how you treat your child if you want her to be smart, bonded, happy," McHale says. "There is no sense that someone else is watching the whole thing. Yet every time you do something with one of your kids, it has implications for how the other child feels and thinks and understands."




Siblings, says McHale, influence each other in terms of identity, development and how they form relationships with others. They copy each other, reinforcing behavior, serving as models and introducing each other to experiences. Older siblings may become a conduit to adolescent culture, and a sibling's friends also offer a new set of experiences to learn from.

More Than Rivalry

The term "rivalry" - the word most commonly used to describe the sibling dynamic - is only one aspect of the sibling relationship.

Laurie Kramer, an associate professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, has been studying siblings for more than 15 years. "I'm never quite sure what people mean when they say 'sibling rivalry,'" she says. "Information for parents focuses on how to get your kids to stop doing what you don't want them to. I turn it around: How can parents get kids to do what's working?"

Kramer says most literature focuses on "putting out fires" and ending the bickering and conflict that parents find so annoying. Yet, she adds, conflict can be constructive, helping children with the development of identity and the understanding of emotions.

"When you look at what siblings actually do in their relationships. you see a mixture of positive and negative things," Kramer says. "We never see kids who are always in conflict or always clamoring for parental attention or resources.

"On the other end of it," she adds, "we rarely see kids being sweet and positive to each other all the time. Certainly there are times when kids feel rivalry or feel a sibling is interfering with their goals. The term 'sibling relationships' opens the door to more positive knowledge, but sibling rivalry grabs people's attention."

Jane Dornbusch, a mother of two elementary-school-age daughters, admits her children's squabbles are annoying, but thinks fighting is something that "goes with the territory."

"You have to look at the bigger picture," she says. "Is there a serious issue that will create long-term grievances, or is it 'She wore my socks without asking'? It's irritating to listen to, without question, but you can't get very excited about that stuff."



Roots in Evolutionary Biology

Sibling relationships have their roots in biology. Douglas Mock, a professor of zoology at the University of Oklahoma, is writing a book tentatively titled Thicker Than Blood: The Biology of Family Strife. He traces the competition between siblings to the Darwinian notion of doing what is necessary to ensure survival. In other words, according to Mock, sibling interests often overlap, but when there is a limited amount of critical resources, each sibling will fight for his or her own interests.

Of course, with humans, it is never just material resources that siblings compete for, but the love and attention only parents can provide.

Is It Fair?

Kramer and her former associate, Amanda Kowal, now an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri, say that, although it is impossible to treat children equally, it is possible to be fair. And she emphasizes that children will understand different treatment if it is explained to them.

"Previous research has underestimated kids in their ability to empathize," says Kowal. "When they can, they don't see differential treatment so negatively. We shouldn't make this expectation that we have to treat children equally, but put energy instead into talking about how a child's needs are being filled. Helping children understand this may have positive effects."

Kowal contends that it's not beneficial to treat children the same because kids are very different and don't have the same needs and personalities. "There's research to suggest that if you treated children exactly equally, they wouldn't perceive it that way anyway," she says.

Children, Kowal and Kramer learned, will come up with their own explanations for unequal treatment. In their study of children between the ages of 11 and 16, they found that the kids were not only empathic, they came up with their own explanations for why things were different: "Jake is older" or "Rose needs Mom to play with her more because I've got more friends" or "Debbie gets sick a lot, so Dad spends more time with her."



Parents' Role

McHale says her research with the 400 families she and her colleagues have been following for the last seven years shows that a child has to have a good relationship with the parents in order to accept the different treatment.

"The first step is to have warmth and trust in the relationship, otherwise they're not going to listen to your reasons," McHale says. "The child has to 'buy' the parents' reason about why the first-born has privileges or why Dad will be your sister's coach and not yours. Our findings show that perceptions of fairness make a difference, that if you see it as fair, differential treatment doesn't have a bad outcome."

Teaching empathy can begin early. You can prepare a first-born child for the birth of a sibling by helping to develop empathy and talking about the new baby as someone with her own thoughts, needs and feelings, as her own person, Kowal says.

"It's important for parents to talk with children early on," she notes. "You can say, 'Your brother needs this right now. We want to give you what you need when you need it. We love you.'"

Knowing What to Do

Still, many parents say they don't know what to do when their children don't get along. In one of Kramer's studies, researchers visited homes with children and put hidden microphones in the room where the children were playing. The researcher then listened with the parent in a different room. In a questionnaire completed beforehand, most parents said that when their children fought they intervened by talking to the children and helping them talk with each other and come up with a resolution. But what the researchers discovered was that in real life, when the kids started bickering, most parents ignored what was going on and did nothing.

Susan Brink, the mother of two grown daughters, recalls them competing for her attention when they were growing up. "I think they fought with each other a lot just to get my attention," she says, "and I was never very good at knowing what to do. I would yell and feel guilty. I'd send them up to their separate rooms and still feel guilty. I always felt like I wasn't giving them enough attention and, if I was doing things right, I'd have a happy, smiling little crew. They fought a lot verbally, and I felt at the end of my rope."



Kramer says parents often don't feel competent.

"It's very hard for families to try to find ways to handle the issues," she says. "I think we need to provide them with more support."

Kramer is also investigating the kinds of social skills that children can use to set up a more positive relationship with their siblings early on. She runs a program called Fun with Sisters and Brothers that teaches young children how to initiate play, how to accept an invitation to play and how to decline an invitation appropriately. She has found that young children who have a best friend during the time when a new sibling is born do well with the sibling. Children who are able to have elaborate play episodes, engage in fantasy play and manage conflicts develop the most positive sibling relationships. A best friend, Kramer says, offers opportunities to learn how to deal with conflict and frustration and also can serve as an ally to help the child feel good about himself or herself.

Rewarding Good Behavior

Kramer also suggests verbally rewarding good behavior among siblings with comments such as, "It makes me feel good to see you helping each other" or "I really like the way you two played that game together."

The rewards of having a good sibling relationship can be limitless. "My girls would say that it's worth it," says Brink, whose grown daughters still compete for her attention at times." They really care about each other, they confide in each other. I know they talk about really intimate things that they don't talk to me about. And I think they're both really interested in their own personal history at this point, how they grew up and what it meant to them, and they like each other's interpretation. The isolated household that is your world for so many years - very few people know about that, but my daughters know theirs, and they're the only ones."

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