How do siblings work?
November 3, 2014 11:02 PM   Subscribe

As an only-child parent of two wonderful girls who are entering the Age of Sibling Interaction with a roar, quite often I find myself wondering...what the hell is going on?

Our girls are 5 1/2 and 2, both high-energy, voluble and bursting with emotions--especially, lately, when it comes to each other.

This is all so new to me. My wife has a brother, but i was an only child with a relatively quiet upbringing. I had friends and all, but also lots of time alone and one-on-one (and -two) with my parents.

So far I find two things the most...surprising: 1) the raw competition for parental attention, especially Mommy's, and 2) the love-hate-hug-hit-adore-detest cycle that rolls through on what seems like an hourly basis. There is so much random, spontaneous antagonism, at least from the older toward the younger, until it's swept away by love-tackles a minute later. It's emotionally exhausting in a way my own childhood never was.

I know this is all normal, but I'd still love any advice on how to not just understand it but how to to guide it (when necessary) in the healthiest direction for everyone involved: when to intervene, when to stand back and let them work it out like gladiators, when to chill, when to yank (my own) hair out and run from the room screaming.

(I already have a copy of Siblings Without Rivalry.)
posted by gottabefunky to Human Relations (14 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
The prologue and Act One of the David and Goliath episode of This American Life might be enlightening listening. The age gap between your girls is not as great, but there might be a few moments of recognition anyway. There's certainly some discussion on when to intervene and when not to!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:09 PM on November 3, 2014

There are different schools of thought, but I'm from the one that says that if no one is getting injured or truly verbally abused, generally you can stay out of it and let them work it out. I have two younger siblings and there was a ton of competition, arguments, and straight up brawling while I was growing up - and now we all love each other dearly and interact like well adjusted adults for the most part. Up until my siblings were out of college I actually wouldn't have believed this could happen, so, anecdotally just wanted to reassure you that even after many years of an adversarial relationship as kids, things can turn out just ducky.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:52 PM on November 3, 2014 [14 favorites]

No kids of my own, just observations, two in particular; 2 sisters a year apart, 2 brothers 2 years apart.

There was real vicious fighting amongst them, the older always at an advantage psychologically, physically. With the girls, it was truly appalling, how the older sister was to the younger. Now that I really consider it, it was truly appalling with those brothers, too. The brothers totally physical, like wild animals.

Again, the older sibs had distinct advantages. If I were to parent in that scene, I'd like to think I could figure out how to handicap the older somehow.

Dogs will fight one another to the death but they'll turn as one against the wolf. No one messed around with any of those kids without being taken down by both. Instant unification.

The girls? The instant the older one went to college, she missed her younger sister desperately, they now attend the same school, maybe even room together? Not sure on that bit, but they are tight. The brothers, they're rough and tumble, much less nowadaze but it'd never surprise me to see one of them with a black eye, and if one had a black eye the other would also; they're pretty much psychos. If you knew the family history you'd get a sense of what went down, and comes down. I'm *way* closest to the younger brother, spoke to the older brother this afternoon -- mis-dial on the cell -- and it's so much like talking to the younger; phrasings, pacing, expressions, emotional intonations and inflections; it's really fun to hear.

tl;dr -- Every situation is different, every child is different. Age confers advantage, so handicap it as you're able. Get ready to be happy to see them turn as one against the wolf.

You're fortunate, having these children. A piece of life I missed out on. I'm envious.

Have fun!
posted by dancestoblue at 1:18 AM on November 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is one of my great interests - I recommend "Sibling Relationships" edited by Prophecy Coles. Here is an abstract of her article The Children in the Apple Tree.
posted by honey-barbara at 1:39 AM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd say vying for your attention is something you want to diffuse mostly. It's like pouring gasoline on the sibling rivalry fire (personal observations and experiences as a kid and adult).

So, diffusing, as in leaving them to settle it themselves, having an adult paying attention to each kid maybe, giving the older kid a role while you're caring for the younger (e.g. sent to fetch item while parent changes diapers). Lots of unstructured play time, unsupervised even. Toys or parks where they can make up their own stories and rules without being instructed about the Proper way of doing things.

If you do poke in, keep in mind that parental authority carries some weight (think "Eleven" by Sandra Cisneros), decisive argument settling can make the losing side feel helpless, encourage the other(s) to self-righteously gang up, unexpected misunderstandings (And sometimes both siblings are in the wrong). Not saying to treat them like glass, but if they're old enough, maybe a little Socratic-question-encouraging them to try to understand each others feelings (and their own), how they could both have their reasons for their actions.

Really, I think the most influential thing you could do is to model good communication and empathy and give them lots of space. How do you and your spouse (Adults) handle frustration or misunderstandings with each other? kind of thing.
posted by ana scoot at 2:25 AM on November 4, 2014

My sibling experience is similar to treehorn+bunny's, but my own kids' fighting still threw me for a loop. I found the book NurtureShock helpful in a lot of different ways. It addresses sibling rivalry, among other things, from a cognitive development point of view. I felt better when I at least had an idea about what was going on in those little brains.
posted by SamanthaK at 7:04 AM on November 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

My brother and I were born four years apart, and our personalities were different even as children. I was the quiet, introverted kid who preferred to play by himself or immerse himself in a book. My brother, was extroverted, and extremely dependent; he wouldn't go anywhere by himself.

This meant I was often stuck with him, and it annoyed the hell out of me. Have you considered talking to your older daughter and asking her straight-out if having her baby sister underfoot all the time bothers her?
posted by starbreaker at 7:17 AM on November 4, 2014

Advice-wise, I'd say make sure they each have time alone with you and your partner, and that they each have a place to retreat to that is "theirs." Maybe even do this formally with setting up a corner for each one that she can put her favorite things in and retreat to. The only time I would intervene is when it's making your life difficult (I personally have a low scream tolerance) or one of them is actually hurting the other. It's not always the oldest; I know at least two families where the older kid would get wailed on by the younger because younger was more aggressive. Our family is big on No Hitting, so that would always be my intervention/discipline point. We send the kid out to throw branches or let him punch pillows, but never allow any hitting of people.

I'm the youngest of four, and we are not really buds because we don't share interests, but there's no hate between us, and quite a bit of love. But every time another sibling left home, all our relationships would improve, because it gave us all more room to be ourselves.

The thing about siblings is that if you had to live even with your best friend all the time, and be expected to share everything/vie for parental attention with them always around, things would erupt. Childhood emotions are intense. And kids have short fuses and aren't generally patient with anyone till they get older. I mean, my only loses his patience with us quite often, if there was a sibling, there would be a shout-fest at least once a day.

If it helps, I've been told that when you see siblings who are super close/don't fight it is often because they have been through trauma together, and so have had to set differences aside to protect each other. Siblings who don't have to deal with that are free to fight and express anger because their other needs are being met.

I would also agree that 2 year olds are just a handful regardless. As are 5 year olds.

Libby Anne at Love Joy Feminism has two kids the same age as yours, and I am often impressed with the things she does to teach them consent and respect. This is a good post in particular.
posted by emjaybee at 7:22 AM on November 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

The thing is, it always looks to adults like the older sibling has the advantage. To a 5 year old, though, a 2 year old is a full human being who should know better. It seems outlandish to an adult, but a 5 year old doesn't see the 2 year old the way you do. Because 5 year olds can talk, their magical thinking is more hidden. Don't forget, at this age kids can read, but they also think they can teach their dog to read. And the younger kid can, in fact, hurt their feelings in a way you wouldn't believe. This will remain true for years -- the adults tend to think the younger one has no power, but the older child still sees them as powerful in the relationship. The way a 5 year old might see a 2 year old as responsible is both the source of conflict and the grounds for a deep bond, though.
Not only that, don't forget the 2 year old seems like a usurper in the deepest possible emotional terms. Before the new baby came along, the older one was the center of the universe. No more. It's important to remind the older kid, all the time, that she is *with* the parents in nurturing the toddler -- though not when they are fighting. To foster sibling love and erode resentment for the long haul, therefore, it's important not to always seem to put all the responsibility for their conflict onto the older one. It's as much for the 5 year old's ears as for the toddler's development that you have to say "no" when the little one grabs the bigger one's toys.
And say, explicitly and often -- though not during fighting: Friends come and go, but you will be able to play together and love each other forever.
posted by third rail at 7:29 AM on November 4, 2014 [19 favorites]

Best answer: One of the things I am the most thankful for was that my mother focused a huge amount of energy into making sure my sister and I are as close as possible.

She would never, ever reward competitiveness between us. If one of us had something positive going on (a school prize, good grades), she would have the other one make a little card and she would make sure we were always happy for each other's success. If we fought, we both lost (like if we were fighting for a toy, she would take the toy away, or if one of us didn't want to share, she would also take that away).

When we grew up a bit, she always spoke to us about how a sibling is the person you know the longest in your life, and who knows you the longest, too. She also spoke about how after our parents are gone we will only have each other.

My mom kind of reinforced this by telling the people around us how proud she was that we were so close, which in turn made us really proud of how close we were, and we worked hard at making sure we always stay that way. Even later when we had our own lives and friends, we made an effort to make sure we always had things to do together.

My sister is my best friend. I love her more than anything including myself and I would do anything for her. I know she loves me just as much, and deep down I also know we have very different personalities and we would not have gotten along if my mom had not been so invested in our relationship. I am so thankful for this because even now, a married woman in my 30s, I would feel incomplete and alone without her.

This doesn't seem like a nice word to use, but I think you need to brainwash your kids a bit. If the issue is jealousy of a younger sibling, try to guide them to feel protectiveness or pride instead. Make them work together for things, and make them understand there are no good results for trying to hurt each other. Reward their efforts to be kind and guide their feelings about things. Say things like "look at little Betty, she is growing up and she wants to be just like you, why don't you help her do her hair?" Children learn to approach things from a competitive or collaborative point of view based on the reasoning they see around them.
posted by Tarumba at 8:03 AM on November 4, 2014 [75 favorites]

I love my parents deeply, but they had a very hands-off attitude toward myself and my younger brother. When he did things that annoyed me (stupid stuff, like consistently humming a high-pitched noise with the goal of bothering people) their advice was to just ignore him. As a result, I became excellent at simply ignoring him - through both good and bad. I look back on that with a lot of regret, because I didn't really practice showing him my love very well. We don't have a great relationship today as adults, and although a lot of that is due to wildly different personalities, I think it's also partly rooted in how we treated each other growing up. I wish is been taught to show love more, and he's been taught better ways to get my attention.
posted by samthemander at 9:01 AM on November 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

I completely agree with Tarumba.

My mom was super "hands off" and the result is that I never speak to my sister and we both resent each other.

My boyfriend is the youngest of three and they all get along well. I noticed that book "rivalry-free siblings" or whatever it's called on his parents' bookcase.

Coincidence? I don't think so. Call me a pessimist but I think if you let kids go to seed, "to nature" so to speak, what you will get is a Hobbesian Lord of the Flies type deal.

Children need to be civilized and sibling rivalry must be taught as something wrong and shameful or it is not likely to go away on its own. (My mom's theory that as we get older it will get better has not proved true at all. I am 26 and sis is 33.)
posted by quincunx at 4:34 PM on November 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

My parents did not invest in my relationship with my sister. As adults, we have very very different personalities and would never interact if we weren't siblings. But we are, and despite my parents not shepherding it, we are very close.

What my parents did do is model that family is very important, but that's different than not letting us fight over a toy or requiring us to share every single item.
posted by jeather at 6:43 PM on November 4, 2014

After reading the responses of others, I think that my initial response wasn't a fair and accurate representation of my upbringing. I can certainly see that it may be true that "a hands off attitude" would not result in positive relationships between children, and although I would say my parents allowed us plenty of leeway to resolve our differences with one another, they were far from hands off. My parents were our scout leaders, our athletic team coaches, involved in every way in our lives. We were all homeschooled from 1st-8th grades, so we spent nearly all day every day together during those years of our childhood, an experience that most other kids don't have. We took many family vacations together, including an epic motorhome excursion across the United States when we were tweens. Our family was the type of family that held family meetings every month and discussed allowance strategies and chore chart structures in depth.

On further pondering, I think that the fact that despite our differences, we really had to be each others' best friends as children (even if we were also each others' worst enemies) and our parents emphasized the importance of family and spending time/doing things together and were very fair in their dealings with us, did not play favorites - those things may be more likely part of why we turned out to be very close as adults than the laissez faire attitude about our conflicts. I should add that we are extremely different from one another, which seems to be a common theme above in why some sibling relationships did not work out, but for us it hasn't kept us apart.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:56 PM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older Genealogy info from a license plate?   |   Tell me about radical acceptance/constructive... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.