The Ups and Downs of Sibling Relationships

By Ginsberg, Susan | Work & Family Life, March 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

The Ups and Downs of Sibling Relationships


Ginsberg, Susan, Work & Family Life


When a group of parents was asked recently, "How would like your kids to feel about each other?" their answers were "loving," "protective," "understanding," "sharing," "caring" and "supportive." But when they were asked how they themselves had felt as children toward their siblings, their responses were negative as well as positive: "jealous," "competitive" and "resentful" but at the same time "loving" and "admiring."

Unfulfilled expectations

Why is it so important for us to have our kids get along? As children, many of us longed for a close sibling relationship. Or if we were an only child, we fantasized about having a brother or sister to play with.

Those of us with siblings were told by our parents to love each other and not fight. And most of us remember, from our own childhood, how hurtful a sibling's anger or negative remark could be-and how it stayed with us for years. The reality, of course, is that feelings of love/hate, cooperation/competition, protectiveness/rejection are part of the normal interactions between siblings.

As a parent, you should not feel like you're doing a bad job because your can't trust your three year old alone in a room with your new baby or your older kids seem to be endlessly squabbling. But it's helpful to understand that sibling rivalry is not all negative and to learn some ways to handle it.

What it's all about

Young children tend to think about love as a limited commodity. That is, parents have only so much of it- and if you have to share it with more people, you'll get less. Older kids are often competing for their parents' time and attention when they fight. The fairness issue looms large and stays with us even as grown-ups.

But it's not all bad. There can also be an upside to sibling rivalry. Psychologists Julius and Zelda Segal sum it up neatly in their book Growing Up Smart and Happy. "Through their adversarial roles, kids learn a great deal about handling human relationships-how to stand up for their own rights, how to compete without acting hostile and aggressive, how to resolve conflicts through negotiation and compromise and how to lose gracefully."

Siblings learn valuable lessons about resilience in human relationships, too, says Cathy Rindner Tempelsman, author of ChildWise. "We can feel terribly angry at people-and then feel loving toward them again with no loss of intimacy."

Tips for older siblings

When a new baby comes home, parents are often asked how an older child is reacting. A typical response is, "Oh, he loves his baby sister." But it's not so simple. A sibling may feel loving and protective, and then will tell you to "take the baby back."

Don't deny or dismiss this child's feelings or signs that he or she is upset. As Tempelsman says, "The more attuned you are to your older child's ambivalence, the easier it will be for that child to accept the new baby." Here are some other ideas for ways to help.

* Encourage older siblings to put their feelings into words. Books on sibling rivalry, available for children of all ages, are good conversation starters.

* Talk about the advantages of being the older child and how much more she or he can do-like playing games, sleeping over at Grandma's house and so forth. …

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