Sibling Rivalry: Are We Training Bullies at Home?

Whenever I mention my thoughts about sibling rivalry to someone new, I always hear funny stories of the ways brothers and sisters tortured each other growing up. They don’t usually seem to think that sibling rivalry has had any long lasting impact on them and that they sailed through it just fine to come out on the other side to healthy relationships with both their siblings and the other people in their lives.

But then I talk to people who tell me a totally different story about how fighting with their siblings growing up really did impact them in various significant ways including poor self esteem, a fractured sense of security, and fear. This article is a response to my own experiences and to the experiences of those who tend to fall into this second category. If you are concerned about the level at which your kids are picking at and on each other, this may be a helpful read for you.

Before I continue I would like to issue a disclaimer:

This article is not suggesting that it’s not NORMAL for siblings to have disagreements. After all, familiarity does breed hostility sometimes and protecting our territory is a natural evolutionary impulse. I’m also not suggesting that MY KIDS don’t fight. They are children, not robots. They do get into scrapes, squabble, mouth off, and sometimes (gasp) hit each other.

So let’s move on to what this article IS:

A different perspective

Where Bullying starts…

Being the “anti bully” is rather IN now. Schools and other establishments charged with the forming of young minds are becoming increasingly vigilant in bringing awareness and consequences for bullying behavior in the fight to eradicate it. This is timely and absolutely necessary. Schools and other institutions need to be safe places for children to be and work out who they are without fear of retaliation or being marginalized. On this front, we are making great headway.

However, what I don’t see a whole lot of talk about is about the bullying that goes on often subtly in our homes

1. Bullying or unkind behavior between spouses

2. Bullying or unkind behavior toward children from parents

3. Bully behavior between siblings

This is so surprising to me because if you pick up any article about the issue of bullying or do any deeper research, you will quickly find your way to statements strongly suggesting that bullying behavior is actually most often not often learned at school, but at home.

If children are watching their parents speak unkindly or in bully language, either to them or each other, they are learning a way of existing that is difficult to unlearn. If parents are allowing their children to act in ways that would get them in BIG TROUBLE at school, consequence free AT HOME, then slapping colorful words or policies on a big board and implementing even the harshest zero tolerance policies at school isn’t going to fix anything. Children do what they learn. If you are troubled about your child acting like a bully, it’s highly likely someone has bullied THEM.

How do we fight this?

Building a culture of KINDNESS…

When I was a new mother I was so scared that my kids would experience the bullying that I did. When I was conducting research into these things, I was scared enough that it made me want to put them in a bubble and only let them out for PG experiences. That’s pretty irrational I know. So I had to really dig deep to figure out what I could do to keep this from being “normalized” and accepted in my own little world.

We decided that we would not allow sibling rivalry, as it is traditionally understood.

“But they’ll never learn to work their problems out?!!! You have to let them go at it so they learn how to live in the real world and negotiate issues.”

We hear that quite a bit.

Building a culture of kindness does not mean that ugly words never happen. It doesn’t mean that fights and stand offs are swiftly shut down. It means that when these issues occur and unkind or ugly behavior ensues we STOP and CORRECT IT immediately.

EVERY. TIME.

We remind our children we don’t speak that way in our family to anyone, most especially their siblings who are their first and forever friends. We start and encourage conversations about the feelings and ideas and thoughts of their siblings regularly and celebrate their unique person hood probably (to other people) annoyingly too much. By recognizing the value of the thoughts and feelings of their siblings, we hope to help them empathize instead of accuse.

In place of hateful negotiations, we encourage them to empathize, strategize, and offer suggestions on how to negotiate without hateful and selfish interaction.

Sometimes, its a total bust, being that they are five and almost three, but their brains and abilities will grow and we are counting on the repetition we have built in to become the culture of their heart not only toward their siblings, but also to anyone they meet.

Building a culture of CONNECTION…

If you are going to empathize with someone, you have to first see them as “like yourself” in that their emotions are intensely important, and worth listening to. But not just their emotions;  their perceptions of their own experiences have to be worth listening to as well. They have to be SO important in fact, that you look for ways to put yourself in their own shoes, and feel as they would, in a given situation.

It’s difficult to “teach” empathy. In fact, it’s a little bit impossible. Empathy is watched and absorbed. So when my husband is telling me about his day and I”m doing a thousand other things and my kids are observing this and seeing me not even at least TRY to enter into what he’s saying, or even worse see me blow it off with an offhand comment (happens occasionally sometimes ok frequently), they are seeing me send a message that my stuff is more important that his.

When I stop and look at him, I see things I didn’t hear. I see his face as he describes a disappointment or frustration and I am able to understand from THAT that this is even more upsetting that his words and tone are letting on. That makes me pay attention. I would have missed that if I weren’t looking at him. It makes me feel his emotions.

Translate this to a fight between our kids. We ask them to look at and observe the emotions, tears, and body language. This almost always creates more space for empathy. It opens them up a bit to try and listen to the other child’s frustration.

In summation, we are trying to model how to “enter in” to someone else’s experience, by entering into theirs, and each others as much as we can. When we stop and really to them, they learn that people matter and are not to be toyed with.

So let’s break down a fight that happened yesterday over here:

A Fight over a toy or show and ugly words are FLYING. Maybe fists before I got there.

  1. STOP-separate if you have to but they cannot continue on that path. They must turn around and go the other way, even if it is with kicking feet.
  2. EMPATHIZE-“Brother is feeling that you aren’t’ listening to him and that he wants to have a turn. He is afraid his strong needs and desires won’t be met. Have you felt that way before? (NODS) Of course you have!  How can we work it out to where he feels that he has been heard so we can resolve this? ” (My older girl is very intuitive and verbal so walking her through the little ones emotions really helps her understand, as he isn’t really able to tell her all this yet)
  3. NEGOTIATE/BARGAIN/MAKE A DEAL-this is where they learn real skills that will serve them all their lives. We try to help them figure out a situation, maybe a trade or a time limit/trade off or even a distraction (still a good tool for an almost three year old, as long as it doesn’t minimize or take away from his experience).
  4. CONNECT-We try to get to a happy spot again some point soon where we want to be with each other again. This doesn’t always happen right away especially as they get older, but we do try to guide them back this way so that they can learn that arguments don’t need to break our strong connection with each other.

Full disclosure?

We are still working on this and some of the time it is messy and complicated and frustrating.

And then there’s also the uncomfortable times that we completely blow it with them and each other. Well, the ugly truth is that BLOWING IT is necessary too if we want to:

  1. Teach that it’s okay to make mistakes
  2. Name bad behavior and own it
  3. Teach them how to both make and accept a sincere apology

Sibling rivalry doesn’t have to be something that runs unchecked in your home. It doesn’t have to be allowed, supported, encouraged, indulged, or normalized.  Kindness, humility, connection, and empathy are the antidotes to eradicating bully culture. For us, we are starting at home, where sibling relationships are precious training grounds for learning how to navigate the human heart.

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