By Casey O’Roarty
Did I catch your attention with that title? Sibling love? I hope so.
Some of you may have read that title and thought of your own brother or sister, and the love that you do or don’t have for them.
Some of you read that and thought of your children, and…. well…. let’s just say that sibling stuff comes up a lot in the work I do with parents.
Some of my most treasured relationships are the ones I have with my siblings. We love and support each other; show up when we are needed; inspire and encourage the paths each of us is on.
I am the oldest in my family, and as a child, I was rotten to my siblings, especially the two who are the closest to me in age.
I would mentally and physically torture them.
I was passive-aggressive.
I pressured them to take blame that wasn’t theirs.
I was a nightmare big sister and have apologized many times.
As a parent, I am sensitive to how my kids treat each other. We have conversations about how to talk so the other person feels heard; how to make things right in a way that is meaningful and leaves them committed to behaving differently next time.
I am also well aware that a lot of their drama isn’t so much about them as it is about getting me involved.
So yes, I am here to say that much of the conflict that goes on between our children is actually invited by our behavior.
Ugh. It’s so much easier to just decide that it’s our kids with the problem, isn’t it?
Remember, human behavior is always movement in the direction of belonging (connection) and significance (meaning). With the under-five crowd, a lot of what we see from our kids comes from the older child trying to figure out how they fit (belong) in the family once the younger child has arrived.
They engage in all sorts of mischief, looking for that sense of belonging, and generally, parents meet that mischief with consequences, further alienating that older child.
And the bully/victim mentality begins to grow between our kids.
How do we avoid this?
Recognize that the misbehavior we are seeing has more to do with looking for connection than being “bad.” Put the kids in the same boat – if one of the kids is picking on the other, suggest they both have some “cool down time” and snuggle up with both of them for some read aloud on the couch.
If there is conflict going on around a particular toy, put it away so neither child gets to play with it. Have faith that pulling your kids in, with a loving embrace, will be more powerful in changing behavior than isolation (time out) or a stern lecture.
What my kids are teaching me right now is about how we learn relationship skills. What sounds to me like “fighting” is, to them, puzzling out the problem. This relationship, this sibling relationship, is one of the most powerful relationships our kids are engaged in, and one that will teach them more about social/emotional skills than any other.
As long as we stay out of it.
Does that mean we are totally hands off? That it’s just a free for all? No, of course not. What it does mean is that we regularly share our values about how we treat each other.
The most powerful way to share our values is through modeling them.
Your kids learn problem solving by watching you problem solve, and then by having space to practice it themselves. Changing the language you use in your homes can help with this.
Ask, “How can you and your brother solve that problem? Do you need some suggestions or can you figure out something that works for you both?”
Now, you may be rolling your eyes and thinking, ‘oh yeah, right. THAT will really go over well with my kids.’ I promise you, if you commit to shifting your language, how you show up amidst the sibling strife, it will make a difference.
Let them in on what you are doing. You may tell them that you are sorry for intervening so much in their conflict. That you have recognized you aren’t offering them much room to solve their own problems, and practicing the life skills they are going to need.
You can let them know, “From now on, I am going to stay out of it and let you guys puzzle things out. I have faith that you can do this, and I am always available if you feel stuck, but I will no longer take sides or solve problems for you.”
Again, keeping it real, your kids won’t be jumping for joy at this news. It is convenient for them when you solve their problems.
But as I tell my own 11-year-old daughter when she is having a problems with her 8-year-old brother, “If I solve that problem for you, then it won’t really go away,” to which she responds with an exasperated sigh and eye roll – and proceeds to figure out how to problem solve with her brother.
It isn’t always easy… In fact, this stuff gets really messy. Human relationships are all tied up with emotions and stories and it is tough enough for adults to get it right. Keep that in mind as you mentor and guide your kids in their relationships with each other. Model what you want to see and remember to give them space to practice the skills they are learning.
Stay connected with your kids while also staying out of their conflict. Conflict is what is allowing them to learn and grow their social/life skills and we don’t want it to go away. Shift your perspective on this and embrace the dull roar.
Casey O’Roarty is a Parent Educator and Coach living in Monroe with her family. You can check out her live and online offers, including her blog and videos, at www.joyfulcourage.com.