There is a notion that brothers and sisters will love one another. After all, it’s the longest relationship most of us will ever have. Many do love each other dearly, but others fight like cat and dog. What is it that makes some siblings best friends and makes other siblings serious rivals? We hope that our children will be friends after we die, that they will like and support each other, but we cannot guarantee it. Just look at friends and family to check how many adults are in frequent contact with their siblings? It seems more important than ever that siblings get on. Parents move on, there are many half-brothers and sisters to relate to. What makes for sibling rivalry and can it be prevented? Is it possible to make sure that siblings love each other?
Father comes home one day and says to his wife ‘I have a wonderful surprise. I have met another woman and she is going to move in with us. No, don’t say anything. She’s amazing and you’ll love her, she’s bright and she’s good fun. She is attractive, has a great job which will help with the bills; she can baby-sit so we can get out together more often, and she can do half of the work at home. I’ll spend half my nights with her, and half with you. Isn’t that great?’ Not many women would be overjoyed by this, and yet this is exactly what we say to children ‘You’re going to have a baby brother/sister, isn’t it wonderful?’
There is absolutely no law that says siblings should love or even like one another. Nor is there any law that says there is an ideal gap between the ages of siblings. Nor that the middle child will always have problems. In fact the relationship between siblings is one of the most enduring and most complex relationships there is.
Having more than one baby is strange: the first baby is usually your whole world, the most beloved and especial baby that can be imagined, and a lot of parents worry that they could not possibly love a second baby as much. Then Baby Number 2 arrives and love expands to include him as ‘the most beloved and especial baby etc.’ And so on. What is also a surprise to most parents is that these children grow into individual people. Although you love them all as much as each other, there is often an aspect of one’s personality that is more appealing. One shares your particular interest in, say, ice hockey, one reminds you very much of a much loved – or loathed – relative and you respond accordingly. The children pick up on this. In an ideal world, each child is the occasional favourite. But sometimes life is more complicated. Siblings come in any order and any type. Siblings may have a range of types of relationship, as might any group of unrelated people. Siblings might feel close and enjoy each other’s company; there may be covert and actual conflict; they may be disinterested one re the other; one may try and actually control another, or there might be overt rivalry.
The type of relationship that evolves depends on a range of factors but particularly relevant are the fundamental personalities of the children concerned, the age difference and their gender. There are four particular considerations to the relationships between siblings. Do siblings miss each other? Are they happy to see each other? Do they use them as a base from which to explore? Are they a source of secure attachment? Children have a different relationship with each other than they do with adults, they share childish humour.
Sibling relationships are not static, however, and they change constantly as the children grow and modify their interests and pleasures. This is where parents come in. In an ideal world, parents have made it clear to each child that he or she is the most precious child to his parents, always. He might have to take it in turns to be the cleverest or the most beautiful or the funniest with the other brothers and sisters, but each child should feel that he is always totally loved.
Some children though, seem to start off being jealous of another child however hard you try to make them feel valued; sometimes, for one reason or another, one child has to be more important for a while because he is ill, or being bullied or especially needy. Parents should try to be aware of the feelings of their children. They can help by not making the children compete – if Rosie learns to swim two years before her younger brother, she should be the better swimmer. It’s not a competition, it’s an age thing. It’s probably not a good thing to start two children off in a new activity at the same time – the older one should learn faster, and the younger one could be disheartened. Conversely, if the younger one proves better at a new activity, the older one could feel very inadequate. Easier if one child learns the trumpet and the other the violin, if one learns skating and the other does judo etc.
In any event, whatever happens, share your pleasure in each child’s efforts. ‘Rosie, isn’t it brilliant that Jack has learned to ride his bike?’ ‘Jack, have you seen how clever Rosie is at handstands?’ ‘Dad have you heard how well Rosie can read?’ ‘I was telling Grandma how nice your writing is, Jack’. Try not to make direct comparisons between the children, admire and encourage effort not achievement. Help Jack to be excited with you that Rosie is coming home, let Rosie help you decide what to get Jack as a present. Enjoy their jokes and be pleased if they talk together without you rather than trying to break it up.
Treat the children as individuals [see the parenting piece above] make a point of doing something because one child prefers it, and then adopt the others’ choice. Give the children time to moan about each other, but don’t encourage it. Some siblings never get on terribly well – one becomes rigid and well-organised, the other is a free spirit and the third is so laid back as to appear horizontal – but they would still defend each other against outsiders. There is no reason why children should share each other’s interests. Siblings are as much individuals as any other children, although their upbringings are similar.
Despite this, each usually learns to tolerate the bizarre ways of the others. The child whose brother always wears pyjamas at home, gets used to it. This may be less easy when the children are young – small children are still asserting themselves and may not yet be able to appreciate someone else. So when the little one says something ‘witty’, the older one may feel the need to scoff and Mum might interrupt in order to save bloodshed!! This can be the basis for minimal friendship between siblings. It’s far better for Mum to encourage each child’s strengths, to remind the younger that he is younger, and encourage the older to be a partner-parent at this moment.[see Parenting].
It is not easy to back off when you hear the children scrapping and tip-tapping, but sometimes this will save both your sanity and their relationship. In healthy relationships, children are much more concerned with the feelings of their siblings than of their parents; and it is generally a good thing when children band together against their parents and complain together about someone else. Take care, though, that they don’t make a habit of it!!
Step-siblings pose different questions. Much depends on the parental relationship. If Daddy left Mummy, and the children live with Mummy, they might find it hard to accept that Daddy’s new girlfriend is kind and loving, and even harder to accept her children who might live with Daddy all the time. These children have ‘stolen’ their daddy and perhaps have him to themselves for most of the time. If Mummy is still on her own, then the children might find it even more important to dislike the step-siblings, in order to prove their loyalty.
If Mummy and the children move in with someone who has children, there is an inevitable jockeying for position while both adults try to show how impartial and fair they are. Even small children will intuit that they can distort the balance of power, and ‘not being friends’ is a way to show they are not happy with the situation. In family relationships, as in most other situations, people tend to prefer the familiar, to want to restore the status quo. When a step-sibling is born, older children often have very mixed feelings. They may resent Mummy or Daddy is having a baby with someone else, but be quite excited about a new baby. If you are able to involve the first children in a positive and constructive way, this can be a perfect chance to blend a new family.
But there is no easy way to blend two families. Even when two widowed parents move in together, the children are still very protective of the way their family always did things, and wary of change. Each family operates in its own way, each set of children bring their own strengths and prejudices. But after a couple of years, things usually improve. It can help if you introduce new traditions, new ways of ‘doing Christmas’ as a ‘new’ family.
Many families find that eventually children value the opportunity to have different siblings in different places, and can enjoy their company quite dispassionately. Most siblings, step- or full, grow through the rivalry of childhood and are able to acknowledge their love for each other. Most siblings find they miss each other enormously when they move on. Many siblings, however, continue to have a nostalgia for the rivalry of their youth – and many an adult has been heard to compare their children/furniture/weight/salary/holiday with that of a brother or sister, even while loving them enormously. There appears to be no difficulty in loving a sibling, even whilst remembering that they might just be not as good as you.