Monday 19 March 2018

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.

Taking some time to empathise with your older girl about the range of feelings she might have had then, and may still have, about her brother, and about you, may allow her to express all the hurt more appropriately in words, rather than having to continue to show you by attacking her brother.

Her brother might also need help to talk about his feelings about his sister too. In due course you could sit down with the two of them, together, to help them each understand the other's perspective.

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.


My ten-year-old son is being called 'gay' by his classmates

Q: Very recently we found out that some boys, in his class, were calling our ten-year-old son "gay". The alarming thing is that he did not tell us about this.

His teacher noticed a change in his behaviour in class and got all of the class to write if they were being bullied.

It was then it came to light. Apparently it was going on for some time. I am happy that the school has sorted the matter as much as possible.

However, my son is still very upset about this and is convinced everyone is talking about him and says that everyone thinks that he has a boyfriend.

He thinks there is something wrong with him and I am very concerned about him as his confidence is completely gone and it is affecting him greatly.

He gets very upset when I talk to him and now he does not want to go to school. His behaviour at home has changed as well – he has become very angry and aggressive which is very uncharacteristic of him.

He was always a very quiet and sensitive boy. It is very upsetting to see the change in him.

How can I help him?

A: It is tragic just how devastating bullying can be. Your son's experience is all too common. Don't be too surprised, or shocked, that he didn't tell you about his experiences. Children frequently keep incidences of bullying to themselves.

They sometimes fear that telling will make it worse. Sometimes they can worry about how parents might react, that we could be disappointed in them or cross with them. Sometimes they can feel embarrassed.

Do try to show your son that you can understand that he may have had any or all of these fears. Once he knows that you can see how difficult it may have been from his perspective, you can try to reassure him.

The key messages that your son now needs to hear are that this wasn't his fault, that he did nothing wrong and that the other boys acted meanly.

The particular term that they used to mock him, calling him "gay", is very problematic. Boys most often use the term "gay" cruelly, to suggest that other boys are weak, soft or effeminate in some way.

Your son has also taken on the understanding that others are implying he is weird or different sexually, since he also believes they think he has a boyfriend.

When "gay" is used mockingly, like this, it is also a very hard label, or term, to "stand up" to. If a boy tries to deny being gay his tormentors know that they are getting to him and winding him up.

In all my years of working with children who are, or have been bullied, I still have never come across a really good, assertive, response that a child could use if they are called "gay".

Hopefully, the teacher and school have indeed been able to ensure that the other boys are not allowed to, or able to, slag your son further. They need to be vigilant to make sure that your son is not still being targeted.

The fact that his behaviour remains so off-form and he feels that everyone is still talking about him may mean that, in fact, some kind of teasing or mocking is continuing. It is worth continuing to stay engaged with his teacher to monitor this.

As well as making sure the bullying has stopped, you now, also, need to help your son rebuild his self-esteem. The nature of the taunting he received will have left him, probably, feeling like he isn't good enough, or boy-like enough.

If kindness, thoughtfulness and gentleness were (and are) defining traits that he has, he needs opportunities to see these are really positive strengths.

He also needs to feel that you, and ultimately others, know him to be a boy, with all of the positive characteristics that you associate with boys. So, remind him of all the things he does, like other boys.

Remind him of all of his skills and strengths in whatever areas you can find of sports, hobbies and interests, perhaps even developing new skills in something like martial arts.

Point out the many ways in which he is a valued member of your family. Let him know that you love him and accept him, exactly as he is.

By helping him to feel good about himself, in these kinds of ways, you will give him the resilience he needs to be able to shrug off the taunts that others may throw, confident in his own inner goodness and strength.

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