The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
Lifelong friends or forever fighting? How to stop sibling rivalry
Having seen the competitive nature in her own offspring, Jenny Tucker talks to parents trying to keep the peace between brothers and sisters, and help forge strong bonds that last into adulthood
Acouple of Saturdays ago, I returned home after yet another masked visit to my local shops to discover my two young adult sons had been fighting in my absence. Not literally fisticuffs, but a full-blown ruckus while, supposedly, enjoying an afternoon football match on the TV. It seems they didn’t agree on the team selection, and a mini riot had – like Chelsea – kicked off. They spent the rest of the day in separate rooms and didn’t speak to each other for nearly a week. It wasn’t until the eldest wanted to borrow his brother’s North Face jacket on a rainy day that they grunted mutual admissions of defeat. Finally, our home could breathe again.
The experience left me exhausted. I know enough about myself to admit I’m not great with conflict. But, according to the experts, this isn’t the best approach. Dr Bettina Hohnen and Dr Jane Gilmour, co-authors (with Tara Murphy) of The Incredible Teenage Brain: Everything You Need To Unlock Your Teen’s Potential, believe all sibling relationships will experience conflict, and it’s important not to jump in and shut it down.
They say: “Strong evidence shows that ‘staying with it’ when children experience negative emotions means they can sort through feelings and move forward. It doesn’t mean you agree with their behaviour; you acknowledge it. This alone will significantly increase a positive outcome. Plus, right now, there’s the impact of Covid-19. The intensity of living and working together when we would normally have space and time to develop independently means that what would have been a minor altercation can become a major feud.”
Most of us know it’s not good to compare our kids to each other. In fact, difference is probably the best thing about families. If each child’s individuality is embraced, and their quirks accepted – especially the more challenging ones – they will tend to grow up to be more confident and will also be more equipped to establish their unique place in the family unit.
Kemi Omijeh, a MBACP-registered child and adolescent therapist, says, “Each child is competing for their parents’ attention, and this can even continue into adulthood. Knowing what works best for each one will help address the competition and give you a chance to treat them fairly according to their needs and personality. It’s often easier to fall back on using a blanket approach for all, but if you can give them their individual opportunities to shine, they will not feel as though their personality is being suppressed or they are being compared to their siblings.”
Most therapists will tell us childhood experiences are the foundations for life. And building sibling bonds while young increases our chances of successful connections later. Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist and author of Siblings, agrees: “Sibling relationships are the longest in a person’s lifetime, and so inevitably there will be times of discord. Securing family traditions creates a sense of unity: sitting down for regular meals together or celebrating birthdays in a particular way. As your children move into adulthood, it’s important to keep family rituals going – like organising an annual holiday together.”
In Siblings, Blair shares a study by Victor Cicirelli, professor of psychology at Purdue University in Indiana, which
focuses on sibling relationships in adulthood and old age. Prof Cicirelli says almost all siblings stay in touch throughout the whole of their lives, with 83 per cent of adults in their 60s and older feeling “close or extremely close” to their siblings. Sisters tend to maintain the most frequent contact, brother and sister pairs a little less and brother-brother pairs least of all.
Blair goes on to say: “But if adult siblings do fall out, and there are a million influences which might affect their relationship as they grow up, you lose
your power as a parent to affect that. I’d recommend not judging or taking sides. Maybe tolerating what is going on is simply enough.”
Omijeh says: “Being seen and heard goes a long way. Try to listen to them as individuals, empathise with their account of events, validate their feelings and don’t favour one. If the decision to move on doesn’t intrinsically come from them, the reunion won’t last. It’s worth noting that some relationships are just not good for our mental health, even if they are family.”
I have a favourite line in writer Kahlil Gibran’s infamous poem The Prophet, which says of our children: “And though they are with you yet they belong not to you…” I remind myself of this as my two sons leave the house together, doubled over giggling about some shared joke that mum isn’t privy to. Will they always be side by side, laughing together? I can’t be sure of that. And I definitely can’t control it. But today, we can all enjoy the wondrous pleasure of brotherly love. Let’s just hope Chelsea win their next match.