Recently, there were headlines about how damaging simple sibling fighting can actually be after a study’s findings. As a second born child, I remember being told often that things I liked were stupid, I was “dumb”, etc. etc. Frankly, it did suck and, when it happens to the younger child, it’s by the person they generally look up to. Naturally, I’ve gotten sweet revenge..kidding… kind of… Joking aside, can hurtful comments older siblings make be detrimental to a younger child? How can parents keep sibling interaction healthy? Breezy Mama turned to Dr. Fran Walfish, a child and family psychotherapist who appeared on Fox News to discuss this very issue.
According to the study, sibling bullying can lead to “anger, depression or anxiety” in the child on the receiving end. At what point can natural sibling fights become detrimental psychologically to a child?
Parents need to keep their eyes and ears wide open for patterns of repetition. An occasional sibling tiff is normal and expected. If, for example, you observe a pattern of your older son pounding on his younger brother that is cause for concern. If your younger daughter constantly teases, belittles, and demeans her older sister about being “fat”, “stupid”, “friendless”, or any other hurtful names that is cause for intervention. These patterns penetrate your receiving child’s self-esteem. This is the focus of the study. What the study does not address, however, is the extremely negative effect on the bullying sibling. In my vast experience, the aggressor is a higher risk for trouble in adulthood. Aggressors often grow up with an angry chip on their shoulders and may become adults with poor and failed relationships. Both kids suffer.
As quoted on Fox News, “the study showed that regardless of whether the aggression was mild or severe, bullied kids had significantly worse mental health than children who were not bullied.” What can parents do to eliminate any mentally unhealthy fighting between siblings?
Parents should begin early when the bullying starts and kids are young. The role of Mom and Dad is to become mediators. Never judge, blame, take sides, or decide who is right or wrong. That can lead to one child feeling like the “good” one while the other one’s identity emerges as the “bad” child. Instead, teach your kids how to take turns talking and listening. When upset everyone has a hard time waiting their turn to express powerful feelings. Help the listener wait and take in her sister’s words. Then, support the child to switch places and tolerate listening and repeating/reflecting what her sibling is saying. This slows the process down and teaches good communication skills, rather than leaping to judgments.
It’s natural for siblings to fight, as the study also points out, but when is it especially a problem?
It is absolutely natural for siblings to fight. No matter what the object of dispute is, it is really always Mom’s attention that the children seek. You can define attention as favorite, righteousness, and love. Bottom line, children have a hard time sharing the four eyes of their moms and dads. If a sibling gets a bigger piece of cake, the better seat in the car or gets to go first they unconsciously, or automatically, perceive that Mommy likes him better. They will tell you so over and over. Too many parents feel guilty and get caught in that discussion.
If siblings are fighting constantly, what do you suggest to help parents put a stop to it?
First, try the mediation technique described above in Answer #2. Then, if you determine that a “Cool Down” time is needed, separate the kids and encourage solo play for a while to give the kids a chance to lower the heat on intense emotions and wind down. In a short while the kids can try again. In most families, siblings want to play with each other. There is love, hate, jealousy, and rivalry all mixed together.
Are there activities parents can do that encourage kids to work together versus competing against one another?
It’s great for parents to play a thinking game in which everyone takes turns going around to pitch a “What if” scenario and ask “How Would You Handle It?”. This give the kids a role-playing opportunity to make-up and develop solutions to sibling and social conflicts. You serve yourself up as Referee. You help each child stay within the bounds of imagining the scenario and problem-solving.
Anything else you’d like to share to help siblings get along and put an end to either child being bullied by their own brother or sister?
There are a few more suggestions parents can do to limit sibling bullying. First, parents must take an honest look within at how they truly feel about each child. Do you have favorites? Are you equal and fair about dividing your time and attention among the kids? How do you treat your spouse and how does he treat you? This is an important question because children tend to identify with the Aggressor. The Aggressor in a family is perceived as the one who holds power. No one chooses to be weak. True power does come in anger or aggression. Power is being able to feel and hold strong emotions and use restraint. Self-discipline is your goal for each of your sons and daughters.
About Dr. Frances Walfish:
Frances Walfish, Psy.D. is the foremost Beverly Hills child and family psychotherapist. Her caring approach, exuberant style, humor, and astute insights have earned her a sterling reputation among colleagues and national media alike. A frequent guest on top-tier TV programs, including NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and KABC-TV in Los Angeles, The Doctors, CBS and often appearing in major publications such as Parents Magazine, Family Circle and Woman’s Day, Dr. Fran continues to lead the field with her expert insights and innovative strategies for parents, children and couples.
Her current book, The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child from Palgrave Macmillan’s/St. Martin’s Press, December 7, 2010, is receiving acclaimed reviews. William Morris Endeavor and Lake Paradise Entertainment are presently collaborating with Dr. Fran to produce a television series offering therapeutic guidance and help to families in America. More information on Dr. Fran can be found online at DrFranWalfish.com.
To order Dr. Walfish’s book ($11.56 on Amazon), click here.