The mothers in my mothers’ group asked that we discuss siblings. There are two important issues related to issues that I would like to address – the issue of sibling conflict in general, and the issue of the particular experience of siblings of a troubled child. Let us start with common sibling rivalry.
Sibling conflict is ubiquitous. The biblical example of Jacob and Esau tells the story of brothers fighting in the womb (they were twins) and then one trying to cheat the other of his birthright. This tale includes features of sibling rivalry that are relevant to contemporary family life, such as competition, parental involvement in the rivalry, physical fighting, alienation, and reconciliation in later life.
Competition is key in sibling relationships. All children desire a special relationship with their parents, to be the favorite, the chosen one. Typically, the older child resents the intrusion of the younger sibling into the family. The parents’ attention and loving gestures towards the new family member are eyed with suspicion or frank hostility. Often the older sibling will make remarks such as, “Take the baby back to the hospital!” or “Throw him in the garbage!” However, the real trouble begins when the young competitor begins to crawl and then walk and can physically intrude into the older child’s possessions. Learning to share and take turns with your sibling is a hard won lesson, and parents are also tested as they try to facilitate this learning. Parents often discover that the methods they have used to soothe or comfort their first child do not work in the context of two competing children, and they have to create new ways of calming a child and setting limits.
The main guidelines for dealing with sibling conflict, as all seasoned parents will tell you, are (1) first of all, protect the more vulnerable child; (2) next, try to support a negotiation between the two children – for example, “Why don’t we find something to give her so that she will give you back your dinosaur?” and (3) if negotiation does not work, separate – either from the object of the competition (such as a toy) or one child from the other (if there is physical conflict or continuing provocation), and prepare to make a reparation in the future.
This kind of typical competition between and among siblings is aggravating but not worrisome. When it becomes a real problem, is when there are additional factors that amplify the rivalry or impede the parents’ ability to negotiate a common agenda and set appropriate limits. Typically, but not always, these factors are organized around a lack or imbalance of empathy. This statement is not intended to criticize or judge parents. When families are under stress, it is common for empathic capacity to be strained. The other time parents have difficulty helping their children manage conflict is when one child is troubled – and is either a habitual aggressor or a habitual victim. Let me address the first type of problem first.
In the bible story, their father favored Esau and as he lay dying wished to give Esau his blessing. Their mother favored the other brother and conspired with Jacob to trick the blind father into blessing him. The polarization of family alliances so that one parent is identified with one child and the other parent is identified with the other is common; it is often rationalized as one parent “taking after” or resembling one child more than the other – because of being the same gender or resembling the parent physically or temperamentally – or, for example, the mother staying closer to the youngest or most vulnerable child.
Below the surface, however, this polarization may be fueled by unrecognized conflicts in the marriage, such as the mother feeling neglected by her husband and seeking closeness in her relationship with her son, or the father feeling devalued by his wife and finding validation in the eyes of his little girl. Interestingly, an even deeper source of conflict that may influence polarization is an important loss in the family history that has been incompletely mourned. This may happen if there is a death or serious illness in the family – either the immediate family or in the past. It can happen following a divorce or a career disappointment. One way of understanding this dynamic is that the parents close off the fullness of their painful emotions because awareness of the loss seems overwhelming. They cannot find comfort in each other, because mature relationships require talking about what is bothering you. This is not the case in parent-child relationships, in which the parent can experience comfort or enhanced self-esteem by comforting a child or identifying with his accomplishments. Changing this problematic pattern requires reflection on the part of the parents, identifying the deeper pain, and talking about it with each other. Sometimes a professional is helpful in offering an objective perspective on the matter.
The other issue I want to address in this posting is that of the effect on siblings of a troubled child. Recently, a lovely family came to my office for an evaluation. The child of concern was the youngest, a child with autism. The two older children were remarkably quiet and organized – drawing or reading books – while the parents tried to manage their younger sibling. At one point the little guy opened the door to the office and started to run into the hall, where there is a steep staircase. His older brother blocked his way. “I’m just trying to stop him,” he explained to the parent chasing the younger boy. As I viewed the videotape, I was impressed by the burden assumed by these two siblings of the vulnerable child. Yet, at the end of the family meeting the family found a way of playing together that included the youngest child. The joy in the room was even more than you would expect from a family having fun together. No one said it, but if felt like a triumph.
The siblings of a “problem” child may suffer because of relative lack of attention from stressed and preoccupied parents, from provocation and verbal or sometimes physical attacks, from constraints on their freedom to entertain friends in the home or from shame about revealing their home situation to peers, and from “survivor guilt”. By survivor guilt, I mean from the sibling’s guilt that he or she is healthy and competent, while the problem child is not. There is also another kind of guilt – guilt from anger and even hatred towards the child who is causing so much trouble and at the parents for not protecting them from their destructive sibling. That guilt is amplified by an awareness of how much the sibling and also the parents suffer. It is a very hard situation. Siblings can have this kind of reaction when their sibling has a serious medical illness, but it can be especially confusing and thus hard to understand when the problem sibling seems healthy but throws terrible tantrums and behaves in ways that are clearly inappropriate and against the rules. What makes matters worse is that there often are – and need to be – different rules for the different siblings, so that the problem child seems to be “getting away with” behavior that his or her siblings cannot.
What is the solution to this big problem? It will not be hard to imagine that I do not have a good solution. The best solution of course would be to help the problem child. But, if the parents are not able to help their problem child, the family is not working well, and the siblings suffer. The modest answers I have to answer are – (1) encourage siblings to talk about their experiences and feelings about their problem sibling; (2) create an atmosphere in which sad and angry feelings are tolerated and can be understood; (3) work very hard on the parental partnership so that conflict within the family can be contained; (4) create as many happy family rituals as possible and keep them going despite the disruptions; and – this may be the hardest of all – (5) allow the siblings to develop important relationships outside the family.
Why do I say that #5 may be hard for parents? Because parents have a powerful and natural desire to comfort their children, and if the problem child cannot be comforted, they most likely want another chance at being a comforting parent with the siblings. Also, if the sibling turns away from the family for comfort, the parent may feel abandoned; parents with a “problem child” already feel abandoned by that child – by his or her inexplicable meltdowns, noncompliance, lack of good times together. Finally, the parent may feel more like a failure by comparison with the adult or family the sibling chooses as a substitute parent or family. Why do I feel this is important? Because in decades of treating adults in psychotherapy, many have told me that the only way they survived their family troubles – such as an unhappy marriage or a troubled sibling – was to escape to a friend’s or relative’s house (I don’t mean “forever”, just for supper or a sleepover, for example). In those cases where the parents allowed or even gave the sibling their blessing to find comfort elsewhere, the sibling returned. It is important to remember that helping a child find what he needs to grow up, even if it is outside the home, is being a good parent.