Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Sibling Rivalry

SiblingsQ: My son is constantly fighting with his younger sister. They can't seem to ever get along. How do I put an end to this negative behavior?

A: Whenever you want to stop a behavior in a family, always ask yourself, "What is driving this behavior?" Getting to the root cause, rather than addressing just the behavior, will lead you to the solution.

Typically, however, we tend to ask the wrong question when addressing a child's negative behavior. We ask,
"How do I stop this (or put an end to this) negative behavior?" If you ask the wrong question, you're going to get the wrong answer.

In this instance, the "right" question would be, "What is driving the sibling rivalry?"

Traditionally, we have seen sibling rivalry as a conflict between the children. Countless parenting resources describe sibling rivalry as jealous and competitive fighting between brothers and sisters.

This is not the root cause. Sibling rivalry is driven from the lack of relationship or the lack of security that children have with their parents. Hence, sibling rivalry is between the parent and child, not child and child.
For example, if your Billy is mean and upset with his sister Sally, is it really between Billy and Sally? No. Billy's interpretation and perception is that his parents love Sally more. If Billy "gets rid of Sally" or picks on Sally, then the love will go to him, not his sister. Billy sees love as a commodity--there is only a limited supply. In his eyes, if Sally is getting the love, then there won't be enough for him.

Billy is creating attention for himself; he is creating relationship but in a negative way. What we have to remember is that any form of attention, whether positive or negative, satisfies a child's need for attention, connection and love. Billy is working to calm his internal need for parental connection through a negative means.

This leads us to the solution. What Billy actually needs is time with his parent(s) in order to help him feel special, wanted, good enough, and loved. Spending more individual time with Billy will give him the attention he has been seeking all along. When the relationship between each child and the parent(s) becomes more secure and more deeply connected, the need for Billy to create negative attention dissipates and in many cases, disappears altogether.

Another strategy to help Billy learn that he is unconditionally loved is to address his attacks on Sally in the moment. When Billy is being mean to Sally, instead of rejecting Billy by sending him away to his room, he needs you to bring him closer to you, giving him more security. When you can truly see that behavior is a form of communication, it will make sense to do this instead of being scared you are rewarding Billy for bad behavior. Billy NEEDS attention in order to calm his nervous system and to secure his place in the family system.

Remember, the true issue behind sibling rivalry is the lack of relationship. Your goal is to decrease Billy's fear and stress and to create connection with him. Don't mention his behavior in the moment (you'll have a chance later to teach the life lesson) but focus on how you can calm his nervous system and secure him in relationship.

Traditional techniques are actually damaging because, for a child like Billy, sending him away to his room and punishing him actually create more insecurity and more rejection. If we want our children to heal and improve their behaviors, we can't be creating more of the same.

The dictionary defines "discipline" as "Training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement." To discipline Billy for this behavior means to teach him a new pattern that is morally right. Some children don't know any other way to solve conflicts other than by fighting. A conversation with Billy might sound like this:
Dad: "Billy, when you get frustrated and aggregated with Sally, instead of hitting her or taking her toy (because this is NOT okay to do in our family), I want you to come to me so I can help you feel safe. You're not in trouble. My job as your daddy is to help you find a better way so everybody is okay and nobody gets hurt in this family."
Dad is working to take away the fear and the punishment. Dad's "discipline goal" is to teach and guide Billy to develop a better way through the influence of the parent/child relationship and to help Billy communicate his need for attention more effectively.

Dad also helps Billy learn to communicate his feelings and to express his needs to his parents through verbal communication instead of acting out negatively. There are five basic feeling words children of almost any age can learn, "I'm mad, sad, glad, scared, or happy." Opening the lines of emotional communication is one of the keys to helping any child through almost any behavior.

Put love into action to secure your little Billy and you'll spend more quality and fun time instead of breaking up all the fights! 

Press on, 
Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love, and Help for Billy.