Siblings – when conflict hurts

In my previous article on siblings, I talked of rivalry and conflict together with intense loving feelings between siblings. Generally, these feelings sort themselves out and love prevails. Sometimes they don’t. We all know of adult siblings who have little contact with each other. This might be a happy arrangement for both parties, for often siblings are just very different people, and the old saying of choosing your friends but not your family comes to mind. Sometimes though it isn’t a happy arrangement and is a result of unresolved issues.

What if siblings can’t get on when they are children? What do you do when rivalrous feelings don’t diminish and resolve? It can be very difficult for parents and can affect the functioning of family life. A rule of thumb is that the parents need to take charge and make the children feel safer. However, this needs to go alongside empathic feelings for both children (it is usually two children in a sibling group who are in constant conflict). They will be in a dynamic from which they can’t escape. It can make them both unhappy, regardless of whether they are the stomping child who tantrums or the one who seems to be happy but keeps out of the way. This is the most common dynamic.

Sometimes, one sibling is brighter, prettier, more composed, more sociable. Whatever it is, this can feel excruciating for the sibling who feels that he is not the one who gets the positive attention. However much parents, relatives and teachers try to be equable, children who feel in some way less than others become hyper-sensitive to what happens in relationships.

It can be very helpful for parents to name some of these feelings, to acknowledge them. So they might say, ‘I can see how hard it is to speak up when your sister always manages to say things. You might just feel like not bothering.’ Often, a response is forthcoming and an empathic conversation ensues where the child feels heard, understood and can find strength to feel more confident. To the sister in this scenario, the parents might say, ‘You always manage to speak up. You might sometimes feel like you have to speak for you and your brother. That must be hard work speaking for two.’ Again, a conversation might begin where the child names her feelings about her quiet brother. She might say that she enjoys speaking for two, which allows the parent to put the other child’s point of view forward. You as the parents are helping your children to negotiate their way through the minefield of relationships when they don’t necessarily have the sophistication to do it themselves.

Previously, I have mentioned positions in the family – first-borns, second-borns and so on. Also, the arrival of half and step siblings. All of these have a strong influence.

Another influence is the early bonding experience of the child. If for whatever reason this took a while to happen, more work might need to be done when the child is older.Mother and child can find time together to play games which involve eye contact,touching, fun. Most traditional party games involve all of these things – Simon Says, blindfold games, row the boat, any games that involve looking at and listening to your partner, so that the early reciprocal mother-infant relationship is replicated or experienced afresh. Sometimes, professional help is needed to break a negative cycle. It is nobody’s fault if this happens. Families are complicated and are worth giving time and attention to, sometimes with the help of others.

Dr Angela Evans

Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist

Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists