As siblings learn to get along, they’ll have to deal with their differences in temperament.
For example, on the surface, a quiet, sensitive child may not appear to react to her brother’s boisterous taunts and jeers. She seems to wait to be attacked. Her behavior is so submissive that an observer wants to tell her, “Don’t let him take advantage of you like that.” Her focus seems to be directed inward. Her breathing changes, but she does not move. As he descends on her to tease her, she watches him. She listens but doesn’t seem to respond. She has already learned to be as still as possible, to avoid becoming his target. When her brother builds up to a crescendo of activity, she might become even quieter, and more watchful.
As he tears around the room, her only move is to place herself in his path. Eventually, she resorts to silent sobs, her body limp and unresponsive. A parent’s reaction will be to rush to comfort her, while her brother stands by, shrouded in guilt and misery. Over time, a younger sibling may even take on the behavior of a victim. In school, other children begin to respond to her passive withdrawal. She may become the victim of bullying, or be excluded as a result.
Parents will wish that she would react more openly and fight back. But the style of a child like this is quiet observation and compliance. If the first child is a highly active handful, parents may ask about the second, “Do you suppose she knew I couldn’t stand another one like that?”
If they feel responsible for her gentle ways, parents may try to change her. But they’ll do best if they make sure she knows she’s accepted just as she is. Then they can watch carefully for their tendency to reward and reinforce her passivity and leave more room for her to stand up for herself.
Often, almost magically, children fit themselves into slots in a family, different from each other, as if they “needed” to take special roles. A child with a quiet temperament who has a sibling full of hard-driving intensity may be led straight into an even more withdrawn role. Parents can see this kind of reaction as one way that children learn about each other, and each others’ temperament. A child’s passivity could be attributed partly to the effect of temperament, including hypersensitivity to sound, to touch or to being approached. But parents need also to recognize that their reactions reinforce children further in these various slots. Parents can learn a lot by watching two siblings, while keeping out of sight. To their surprise, they may find that a boisterous older sibling likes to play with the quiet one as well as to tease her. When they sit on the floor together, he’ll slow down, build a block tower for her, watch her eyes grow large and glisten. In her own way, a watchful sibling pushes an active one to new mastery. An adoring younger sibling learns that the older one will come to her when she calls. When they build up to a crisis, a word from her may avert it. She will begin to realize that she can woo him and win occasionally; parents will observe that children save these touching moments for times when they are alone. Free of others’ reactions, each child expands his range beyond his ”slot.”
Think how much children learn by adapting to each other’s temperament. They can learn to share, to give, to console, to care about each other. Each also experiences the deeper satisfaction that such gestures bring.
A Parent’s Presence
Sibling rivalry is much more likely to build up to a crescendo if a parent is nearby. I’ve never heard of a sibling who has really hurt another unless a parent was close at hand. I’m sure it has happened, but I suspect that it is rare. A major aim of siblings’ rivalry is to draw in a parent. Siblings want a parent involved to heighten the excitement, but also to be sure the parent is there to limit the danger of losing control. The assurance that a parent is nearby sets a boundary on how far the rivalry can be taken. It is almost as if children set up their struggles when a parent is near to be certain that they will be helped to learn how to stop themselves.
A wise parent will see sibling clashes as an opportunity for learning. But you will first need to handle your own angry and protective reactions. Then, you can gather up each child. Sit down with them both. Calmly face the episode together and with as little blame as possible. To an active older child, you might say, “You could have hurt her. I doubt that you’d feel good about that.” To a quiet but provocative younger one: “Your teasing made him angry. That may be why he got after you.” And to both: “You need to take care of this yourselves. But until you can stop hurting each other, I’ll have to stop you. Let me know when you feel ready to play together again without clobbering each other!”
You’ll be giving them the chance to learn to take care of each other, your long-term goal.
How Parents Can Help Siblings Learn From Each Other
Sibling rivalry can be a learning experience for everybody – parents as well as children. To enhance opportunities that arise from the conflict that comes so naturally, try these precepts:
- Make sure your children know that you accept them as they are, whatever role they happen to play with their siblings.
- If children fall into “slots” in the family, recognize that your actions may reinforce their roles.
- Watch your children at play unawares. You’ll see that sometimes roles are reversed, to your surprise and perhaps delight.
- See how much children can learn from adapting to one another.
This article is adapted from “Understanding Sibling Rivalry,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.