Wednesday 28 January 2015

David Coleman: Our daughter and son fight constantly

Sibling rivalry can make life hell for parents. Photo: Getty Images.
Sibling rivalry can make life hell for parents. Photo: Getty Images.
Dealing with name-calling can be difficult. Picture posed. Thinkstock

We have three children, a girl aged nine and two boys aged seven and six. Our major problem is that our daughter and older son fight constantly, making our lives hell. It is like going on holidays with a couple who don't get on.

They are constantly bickering, arguing and physically hurting each other. I feel our daughter did suffer since her little brother came home from hospital. We spent the first four years protecting him from her. I have tried to talk to her about her feelings towards her brother. She says she just hates him.

She is a very happy child in every other way. She has lots of friends and gets on well in school. We try to engage them in family games and such like, but we have given up as it always ends in rows.

My only strategy, at the moment is to separate them as much as possible. For example, they have meals separately as I can't turn my back for a minute.

Any suggestions to improve their relationship would be greatly appreciated.

A: It is so easy for sibling rivalry to develop. As you noticed, your daughter seemed put out right from when her brother was born. Even at two years of age she recognised that his arrival changed things for her.

Some common struggles that older children have can include: feelings of displacement – that there is a new favourite for their parents' affections; feelings of loss – that their special relationship with a parent is disrupted by having to share their parents' time and attention; and feelings of rejection – that everyone, including visitors, want to spend time with the baby, but not them.

All oldest siblings need a chance to understand and express these kinds of feelings because they are very natural. However, most parents put eldest children, or older children, under an obligation to 'love' their little brother or sister.

If these natural negative feelings get dismissed or blocked by parents they can get stuck, emotionally, within children and then end up getting expressed outwardly in angry or aggressive behaviour instead.

Sometimes children harbour resentment towards their parents for foisting this 'intruder' on to them. Rather than acting out that resentment with their parents (who may reject them for it) they will take it out on the 'intruder' instead.

It is quite possible that any or all of these kinds of feelings emerged in your daughter after her brother was born and may have prompted all of her angry and aggressive behaviour towards him.

At this stage, I'd say that the negative feelings between them are probably mutual and that a large part of why the conflict continues between them is the result of retaliation. Neither of them feels like they can let the behaviour of the other one slide, without some retaliatory response.

However, the place to start trying to repair things is probably with your daughter, as she is a bit older. She is also the one, it seems, who may have kick-started the whole process by her, understandably, negative reaction to her brother being born. I'd be tempted to return to this time, with her, and encourage her to talk about what it is that she has hated about her brother. I do believe that in many cases it isn't until all the bad feelings come out that more positive feelings can take their place.

Given her age, you may have to prompt her with your guesses about what she found difficult about her brother's arrival into the family.

I believe that this emotional work will create a more positive space for each of them to consider the needs and the feelings of the other. Once they realise that there is no need to punish each other it can allow a much more healthy relationship to develop.

The book, 'Siblings Without Rivalry' by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is also a great resource of practical ideas for helping children to build more positive relationships.


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