Siblings is a topic that comes up every day when I’m working with both parents and professionals. How do we manage the difficulties that can often arise between siblings?
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“If you’re a sibling yourself, you will know that sometimes you get on really well with them, and at other times, you’ve decided they’re the worst person on the planet and you don’t want them anywhere near you.”
It’s a really complex topic, without a one-size -fits-all answer. Every family has a slightly different dynamic and the reasons that siblings are struggling to connect in a positive way are different for every family.
There’s no right or wrong way for siblings to connect. Some siblings will never reach the stage of being best buddies for their entire lives – some will just be “ok” whilst others will connect better later in life – there’s no rule-book to follow here.
As parents, it’s up to us to do everything we can to support them to create the best relationship that they can, or understand it if it’s gone wrong.
We all know that sibling rivalry is normal, it’s part of the relationship. But sometimes it can go too far and begin causing real problems in the family home, or causing more upset for one sibling in particular and when it’s causing actual harm, then we need to do something about it.
We need to think about sibling rivalry in the way we think about all behaviours.
All behaviour is communication. When we are thinking about children and the struggles they might be having, we don’t just look at the behaviour, we look at what’s sitting beneath the behaviour. What is it they’re trying to communicate through this behaviour?
We also need to remember that as parents, it’s not our job necessarily to fix everything. We can’t always find a solution to every problem. We can’t solve everything for our children.
We can be there 100% to support them and help them work with them to problem solve issues, and often it’s more beneficial for the child to be part of the solution finding approach.
If one child is struggling more than the other, or one of them is the “instigator” of more of the issues, we need to take a step back as a parent and look at it from a slightly broader point of view.
When we can see the whole picture it’s a lot easier to think about “what do my children need from me now to help them with this situation?”, or “what do my children need from me over the longer term to help change this dynamic?”.
When we’re too close to it, we only see a small part of the picture, and if we focus on only a small part of the picture we don’t always respond and help in the most effective way.
There’s a caveat here – if there’s a safety issue, then you might need to step in straight away and do something.
But if you can take that step back and ask yourself “what’s the whole picture here – what do I need to be doing to help them?”, then you’re going to be able to give them better support.
It can be easy for one sibling to make it look like it’s the other sibling’s fault – they might be gently winding the other sibling up until they react in an explosive manner – then claiming “it wasn’t me mum!”, whilst they’re the instigator. That’s why stepping back is so important, so that we can really see what’s going on.
“We can’t change a person, but we can impact how they see the world.”
Here are some ideas of things that you can do differently or think about using within your parenting when siblings are struggling:
Having a Supporter
It’s really important that they understand that you’re not just standing by and letting it happen – particularly if one sibling is experiencing violence from the others, there may be a sense of “why are you letting this happen to me”, and we need to be very aware of that possible narrative in that child’s mind. One way that you can work with that is by getting them a supporter – a person that they can go and talk to, share how they’re feeling with and get that support. Someone you know that can be there for them when they need it and will understand what’s going on at home. Having a supporter for each of your children is really important and it does make a difference. Ideally you want that supporter to help open the channels of communication between a parent and child.
Look At The Behaviour
Look at what each child is communicating in their behaviour. What is it they’re trying to say? Are they the aggressor? Do they struggle with sharing things? Are they the passive person in this relationship? Do they have a lack of confidence, or feel like their sibling is the “favourite”? When we can understand that we can then start supporting that child and helping them to see that’s not necessarily the case.
Parent Them In The Same Way
Now obviously every child has different needs, but if you can parent both the children with the same approach, ie using NVR for both of them, it’s easier because they don’t see differences. If you’re using more traditional parenting approaches for one and not the other, they’re going to feel like their sibling is getting special treatment or “getting away with it” and it’s going to add to the issues.
Interrupting The Pattern
Think about how you can begin to interrupt the patterns of behaviour. Is it about changing the timetable that you have within the family home? Is it about narrating to them what you can see happening as it’s happening in a very calm tone that shows them you can see what’s going on – often that alone is enough to begin to change the dynamics.
Talk To Them
Talk to them both after a situation has occurred. Talk to them individually initially to understand what’s going on for each of them, then try to bring them together to help them see the other point of view. This doesn’t happen in one stage or on the first day you try this – it’s something you build bit by bit – go at their pace.
As they learn to manage this relationship they will learn to transfer those skills into other relationships.
For some children, particularly if you’re an adoptive parent, foster carer or kinship carer, you may have some severe trauma bonds between your children and that is going to take a lot of work from specialists and therapeutic input to help them heal those trauma bonds – you may need extra support from those around you. It’s important that you feel able to reach out for that extra support needed.
I know it can be incredibly frustrating when your children are constantly arguing – I speak to so many parents every day who are dealing with these difficulties, so I hope you find this information helpful. Over time, with support, you will absolutely get there.