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 be aggressive 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! 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 of maintaining connection while holding limits, 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! In our family it was definitely when our second child was born that was the biggest struggle for us all (read my experience).
It can greatly fuel the older child’s resentments towards their sibling if their parent shows more sympathy for the younger one than for them. Children 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 for my older child, for all of us, when my second child was a baby. In this post I write about that time and how it was only when I managed to get back to a truly soft and compassionate heart towards HIS struggles, that his frustrations and anger could release. Read more.
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.
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:
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.
Genevieve's Stress Relief for Parents CD (also available on MP3) (free to members) 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