Sibling Struggles

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Parents understandably want their children to love each other, to care about each other and to hopefully learn healthy ways of working through differences.   Witnessing acts of kindness between siblings is incredibly heart-melting for parents.  Sibling conflict, on the other hand, is difficult to deal with, and when an older child directs their frustration at their younger more vulnerable sibling this is particularly stressful to say the least!  Not only can it test a parent's patience, but also their feelings of warmth and affection for their child.  Many parents have felt shocked at the things they've thought at these times, the words they've spoken and the harshness of their reactions to the child doing the hurting.

Although it’s easy to see the irony of reacting angrily towards a child whose unable to manage their urge to react angrily towards their brother or sister, it's also incredibly understandable to act from that reactive fight flight response when one’s protective instinct is activated.  The agony that parents can go through at these times can't be underestimated, such disharmony can evoke feelings of guilt, shame, powerlessness, resentment and overwhelm.  Then throw into the mix sleep deprivation, tensions with one’s partner or relatives and it can all feel way too hard to deal with.

Look how you’ve upset your sister!  A parent can struggle to know what to do that will result in decreased conflict and increased harmony between the children.  When a parent doesn't manage to protect the younger child, they can find themselves using all sorts of threats and punishments that they might never have imagined they would resort to.  It's all too easy to lose empathy for the older child and all too easy to resent them for acting out.  If this is your current struggle, you might have already figured out that appealing to your older child to care more about how upsetting it is for their sibling or for you doesn’t tend to work, and that all forms of threats and punishments can only work temporarily and tend to increase the resentment and hence the conflict in the long run.

What to do??  Often one of the missing pieces, which can’t be underestimated, is that the child doing the hurting is acting from feelings of stress and inner turmoil and they need a lot of help to become free of these very difficult emotions.  They need to start seeing that you’re just as concerned about how hard these situations are for them as you are for the baby or younger sibling – yes even though they are clearly the instigator!  Counter-intuitive I know, yet without this element, all our talks, appeals and other strategies will likely just be experienced as further rejection to a child whose already feeling a bit on the outside.  Feedback I receive a lot is that when a parent starts to truly put this theory into practice, which can sometimes (but not always!) be as simple as intervening with words like; “oh girls, I know this is so hard for you both!” – this is often the very first time that the child who tends to instigate the hurting starts to express genuine remorse for their actions.  When the same child felt continually blamed for being the one to cause so much trouble, the weight of their strong feelings of jealousy, anger and resentment and their subsequent defensiveness made it impossible for them to open their hearts towards their sibling.  The more a child feels blamed and pressurized to change (without genuine emotional support and guidance about HOW to change), the more locked into defensiveness and resentment towards their sibling they become.

The changes that a new sibling brings don’t just start at birth of course.  We go through a lot of changes during pregnancy, and a lot of these changes are felt by our children, and these changes can be extremely unsettling and cause a lot of insecurity. Parents often tell their child how great it’s going to be to have a little brother or sister, yet that excitement can fall very flat as the day to day reality kicks in and life seems to revolve so much around the baby.  An older child can hear a lot of appeals to care about the baby’s needs;  “be quiet you’ll wake the baby”, “we can’t go to the park because I need to feed your brother then put him to sleep”, “be more patient, your little sister just wants to play with you”.  And while there are so many more reasons now for parents to get annoyed at the older child (since the needs have gone through the roof!!), the child can’t help noticing that baby sibling never gets in trouble and has become the focus of so much of the attention from parents, relatives, even strangers!

It can greatly fuel the older child’s resentments towards their sibling if their parent shows more sympathy for the younger one than for themChildren need guidance about what they can do instead of taking their frustrations out on their sibling.  Parent and child may need to problem solve about what might work better in these repeating difficult situations.  An example might be; "this is tricky, you enjoy playing with your blocks but your little sister keeps knocking them over, which IS very frustrating for you.  Hmm what can we do, any ideas?"  Inviting a child's contribution can give them a sense of power in a situation where they often feel powerless.  Suggestions by a parent (if offered rather than enforced) can help an older child start to trust that solutions can be found; "hmm what do you think about playing with your blocks at the kitchen table where your sister can't reach?  That way you’d be closer to me as I cook.  Do you think that might work?"  Such a suggestion tends to invite much more cooperation compared to being told to move their blocks with a tone of exasperation.

When my older child struggled with his baby sister.  I remember very well how hard it was when my second child was a baby, my older child who'd had an abundance of good quality attention from his Mum and Dad from birth suddenly had to share us with this new baby who needed SO much time and attention.  Not only was I less available, but in those first few weeks and early months, as is often the case in our nuclear families, I was so exhausted and was a much less cheerful and fun mum that I’d previously been.  Trauma from the birth resulted in post-traumatic stress symptoms of hyper-arousal and anxiety.  Then to add to the challenges, my husband changed jobs resulting in less pay and much longer hours, not a good mix!  My little boy was hurting, confused, insecure, and understandably angry.  He wanted to feel happy and free to enjoy family life, but of course felt pretty powerless to get back to that happy secure place.  As much as he loved his little sister, it was also pretty clear that all these changes pretty much centred around her joining the family!

Where's my sweet, kind, happy boy gone?  My son was previously a very happy, fun loving, friendly and chatty wee boy.  But as his stress built up, he began to express his grief and rage by fighting my every request and showing anger towards the baby.  Some people advised that I should teach him that he can’t “get away with that kind of behaviour”.  Even though I was committed to never using threats or punishments, he did see way too much of my stress and exasperation.  I knew he needed my softness of heart again, for me to get past my own inner turmoil and again truly be there for him.  He desperately needed me to really get his grief and struggles.  Things shifted really fast as soon as I did really start to get it, not just conceptually, but to actually really feel that compassion and warmth for him.  It took a few weeks and I remember what a huge emotional project it was to get clear enough to truly be there for him.  I had got really caught up in a cycle of anxiety because of difficulties around the feeding, repeated mastitis infections, big money worries, feeling stuck in suburbia while longing for the peace of nature, the list went on.  I work with so many parents who are at this stage of life and inevitably it’s a time when there’s still so much to change and develop in oneself, in that primary relationship, lifestyle, finances, health, community, career, which is all so much to hold.

Recognising that I was stuck in feeling powerless.  For me, with the help of a couple of key people who could really tune in to how hard things were for me, I started to shift my focus away from feeling at the mercy of my five year old son's defiance and instead come back to remembering that he needed me every bit as much as my baby needed me.  When I became present enough again to really tune in to my wee boy's inner world, my heart really melted and I could visibly see his relief as he could again see in my eyes and feel in my touch the understanding and compassion that had fizzled away.  From my place of stress I’d intellectualized that he should be grateful that he’d had it so good for so long and he was a big kid now with great friends, in a Steiner kindy which he loved, I wished he’d appreciate how much I still played with him and did for him despite it all.  Yet retrospectively I could see that he’d probably felt pretty shocked that the truly unconditional love and understanding that he'd previously come to rely on (both towards him and between Mum and Dad!) had been replaced with stress and exasperation and he had no way of knowing when or if we’d, as a family, get back to our happy place again.  I was broken-hearted that my son had been seeing my anxiety and stress more than my calm confidence and unconditional love for him.

Reaching the sad beneath the mad.  Once he felt emotionally safe to trust my consistently compassionate support (which took a while for me to master), he began to shift from fighting to grieving, he started to feel safe to express his sad beneath his mad.  I began to enter the scene faster with more patience when my son became frustrated with his little sister.  I would say to him; "it's really understandable that you're angry at your sister, it's normal to feel like that, I just want to help you get all that frustration out of your body".  With a sympathetic look, I would sometimes mirror with my body how he was holding the tension in his body, as I tightened my shoulders I would say "all that stress in your little shoulders" and gently touch his shoulders offering; "let me help you let all that tension out of your jaws and your little hands".  I would touch him affectionately and breathe slowly and deeply until the tight restriction of his breath would ease and his tears would come, or sometimes big loud complaints about how I'm always with the baby and it's not fair.  But the hurts started to come out and his relationship with his sister changed dramatically for the better.  It wasn’t the only time that tensions developed, but in the following years, I always knew to return to that softness of heart when I recognized tensions between the children to be symptomatic of things getting out of balance in the family.

Our point of power as parents lies in that moment between noticing that rising emotional charge and then responding to our child. 

To remain kind and effective, we need to keep developing our awareness of our reactions, learning to witness and recognize them and as this awareness grows, we can eventually learn to manage that aggressive impulse and instead take a deep breath and choose to speak with kindness – thereby modelling that which we want our children to develop.

Other useful links on aggression in children and parents:

Helping children when they hit, push and bite

The audio download of the Teleseminar "Getting back on track - Why we explode and what to do" by Genevieve and Patty Wipfler of Hand in Hand Parenting gives parents lots of tips (and empathy!) for dealing with the anger that rises at such times.  (For member's go to the past teleseminar section to listen now). 

The article on the same subject "Why we explode and how to prevent it?" which discusses why parents are inclines to lose their cool and ways to prevent yelling at their child.

Dealing with Anger in the family and in yourself

Genevieve's Stress Relief for Parents CD (also available on MP3) is a great resource for parents aiming to reduce the stress levels for themselves and their child.  It offers a simple guided relaxation, guaranteed to relieve some tension and great for children trying to settle at bedtime, as well as lots of useful information about the parent's journey of self-healing and equips you with self-regulation skills to help you manage your own frustration and stress.

What Causes Violence? by Aletha Solter PhD, psychologist and author of four parenting books

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