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Newsflash:
Tuesday, 29 June 2004

Supporting Sibling Friendships

Written by  Patty Wipfler

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We all hope that our children will love and respect each other. At the very least, we expect them to play together, get along and be friends. But sometimes it seems that siblings fight constantly and the noise and tension drives parents crazy. How can we get our kids to love each other as much as we love them? How can we get a little peace and quiet when we come home from work, talk on the phone or sit down to dinner?

First let's look at some of the underlying issues in sibling relationships:

  • Children are naturally deeply interested in other children and are drawn to each other. They want to love and be loved by each other.
  • Children have giant-sized needs for warm, relaxed attention from adults. They legitimately need our availability, our direct attention and our ability to think about their needs.
  • When children don't get the attention they require, it creates an emotional hurt. Every child has been hurt in this way -- we don't have enough resources to prevent them from feeling disappointed and rebuffed.
  • Often, children store these feelings up because there's no one available to listen to how they feel.
  • When a parent pays attention to a sibling, another adult, or someone on the phone, the child with stored hurts notices that attention is going to someone else. This stimulates his feelings of need, which feel urgent even if he has just gotten lots of attention.
  • Children naturally (but inconveniently) release their feelings of hurt and regain their sense of satisfaction through laughter, crying, tantrums, raging, perspiring, and trembling. When they are upset, they often show feelings directly or by pursuing behavior that you must stop. Your intervention acts as a trigger, or pretext, that opens their feelings up while you are close by.
  • Listening to a child's feelings without judgment, lecture, or blame is a great way to help your child recover from his distress. At the end of a good cry, a child has much more room for love and cooperation because his distress has been heard and dissolved.
  • Our children's squabbles reawaken old feelings in us, so that it's often hard for us to intervene without causing more hurt. We need listening time to help us work through our frustrations and our fears about our children's distress. We need a chance to release our own feelings.

You will feel better if you remember the following:

  • Every child has feelings of jealousy and anger toward siblings.
  • These are never the only feelings a child has, although they are often the major feelings we, the parents, notice.
  • Most children spend lots of time loving and cooperating with their siblings. We parents tend not to notice this. When the children are getting along fine, we are often thinking about other tasks -- cleaning, cooking, doing laundry, working all day.

Here are some things you can do before, during and after a fight:

  • Regular "special time" with each child helps keep children's sense of your caring for them intact. When times get hard, they are able to work through their feelings more easily, because you've "been there" for them recently.
  • Intervene with attention, or with five minutes of "special time" at the first hint that one child is going "off track." Catching a problem early gives you a chance to connect with your child before resentment has brewed, and before someone has been hurt or insulted. It's always easier to connect with a child before distress has been acted out at a sibling.
  • Apologize when you didn't get there in time to prevent a fight. "I'm sorry I didn't notice how upset you were! I didn't get here in time to keep hard things from happening! Tell me what went on." Your children will be able to get along more easily after the fight if neither is blamed for the upset. They also will be better able to release their feelings of hurt if you take responsibility for keeping things safe in the family.
  • When you arrive at a fight scene, keep the children from hurting each other. Allow all the crying and raging you can stand. Try to have gentle physical contact with both children (or firm contact, if you're keeping them from hurting each other) and take it slow. Ask them in turn what the matter is, and listen back and forth. The release of feelings is the most important thing. Give the situation time - a hurried solution won't stick.
  • There will be many times when one child has hurt another and run away. Vary your response, sometimes spending only a minute with the victim and going to pay attention to the aggressor, other times, spending time with the victim first. Both children need your help. Usually, the aggressor feels guilty and looks like he couldn't care less about his sibling. Don't be fooled. This child has "gone remote" and can't show feelings, but he needs your love to get back to himself again.

Allowing your kids to be friends with each other:

Children love each other easily and fully. They are naturally drawn to each other, and can delight in each other. If you can deal with the issues blocking their friendship, the children will get along.

Support the friendship between your children by remembering these points:

  • Every child has stored hurts and every child has feelings of need frozen inside him.
  • When a child sees a parent attending to a sibling, this stimulates their stored feelings of need. They can't think. They feel a desperate need for attention.
  • Children use pretexts. They hunt for an excuse - not getting to sit next to Daddy at the table, a sibling merely touching their things, someone getting a teaspoon "more" ice cream than they do -- to release their stored feelings of need, jealousy, desperation, and rejection.
  • When we listen to their crying, tantrums, and raging, their sense that all has gone wrong can be released, and they get back in contact with the love we have for them. Listening repairs their sense of connection.

Fighting with a sibling is often a pretext, a way to release feelings of hurt that are not necessarily related to the present anger or situation. Listen to your child, help her address the hurt frozen inside and at the same time you'll be unblocking the friendship between your children.

Last modified on Tuesday, 14 May 2013 13:17
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Patty Wipfler

Patty Wipfler is a mother of two sons, director of The Parents Leadership Institute, and author of the "Listening to Children" booklets, which outline more fully the approach she briefly sketches in this article.

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