The Not-So-Good, Bad and Ugly of Being Siblings – Is It Avoidable?

Olivia de Havilland (left) with her sister, Joan Fontaine in 1945

Anyone who knows me, or has followed my blog for a little while has probably figured out that I don’t have the most fantastic relationship with my older sister. Our clashes thankfully do not have the public spotlight of some famous sibling rivalries – a la Olivia de Haviland vs. Joan Fontaine (above) – but do seem to have the same penchant for the overly dramatic. I certainly do not subscribe to the popular theory that certain behavior should be ignored/allowed “because you’re family,” so I’ve reached a point in my life where I do not allow ANY toxic relationships in my life, end of story. And I’m much happier for it!

Now that I’m having children of my own, I need to address the personal issues I have with sibling dynamics, and start to make decisions as to how I would deal with such situations, as a parent. I’m well aware that it’s not an easy position to be in – you can’t choose sides (even if you would like to) and your initial reaction is probably just to try to defuse the situation. While this is a good temporary solution, it doesn’t really fix things in the long run. The instigator still got to act however they wanted and say whatever they wanted to say. They may make a big show of apologizing afterward, in order to get back in favor with mom and dad, but if given the chance, they would do it all over again. And they do. They do it over and over and over, because there is never any real consequence for their actions….until the day finally comes when the BIG consequence happens, and now nobody’s talking to each other. All because the real core issues were never directly dealt with, and simply talking about what was going on was never encouraged.

So what do you do, as a parent? You can’t have a deep, logical conversation with a young child who is having a regularly scheduled meltdown because they aren’t allowed to take a spoonful of peanut butter “to go” as you’re trying to pack up the car. You need to acknowledge the current issue at hand from the child’s point of view and then get to the real root of the matter – that your attention appears to now be focused on their recently birthed little sibling, for example. As someone who has personally been dismissed with an offhand “just get over it” or “well, it’s in the past” (all of 5 minutes ago!) instead of actually being listened to, I know how frustrating (and unproductive) that dismissal is. I am a firm believer in starting with acknowledging the other person’s feelings. You don’t have to agree, or engage, just acknowledge. Admittedly, I have no actual first-hand parenting experience using this method, but I have watched it work successfully when used with friends’ children, and even when used in dealing with other adults! And it most certainly works when used in dealing with me…and isn’t that the first rule of any relationship – treat others how YOU would want to be treated?

I’m sure there will be times where my good intentions fall flat, and I lock myself in the bathroom under the guise of “needing a moment of privacy” instead of immediately dealing with a temper tantrum. But I want to at least have the intentions, to want to treat my children with respect so that they then can learn how to treat others that way. Granted, we know now that we’re having a baby boy, which takes away the familiar “problem” of producing an older sister, but I’m sure families of boys (or mixed-gender siblings) have their own special blend of issues too. No matter the sibling combination, how these issues are dealt with in the formative years will continue into adulthood. I hope to do my best to keep the conversation open in our family, so that no one ever feels like what they have to say is not worth being listened to.

What are your opinions and experiences with “sibling rivalry?” What advice do you have for a noob mom like myself?

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8 responses to “The Not-So-Good, Bad and Ugly of Being Siblings – Is It Avoidable?

  1. I have a girl who is 15 and a son who is 8. While I do agree with acknowledging their feelings and opinions, sometimes with the bickering I just tell one or both to “get over it!”. It may be self preservation, or picking my battles perhaps. Of course, on the serious topics I always beging with listening. Frequently, I wont respond or react on the fly, which would be my advice. Take a few moments to mull it over, and call them back into the room when you’ve had the chance to give it thought. They dont need an instant answer or reply, and demonstrating that you’re taking a second to think it through is a good lesson for them to learn, to think before speaking.

    hance to work through it.

    • Haha – yes, I’m sure when the bickering starts, a “get over it” is the best response! But I’m glad we see eye to eye on opening communication on the more serious issues. Not reacting on the fly is great advice…and one that I try very hard to follow (although not always successfully). Thinking before you say something reactionary is definitely a good example to make for your kids!

  2. Without sounding like a know-it-all parent saying something like, “Just wait” or “you’ll see” I will say that my feelings about and my relationships with my siblings has adjusted dramatically over the years as I’ve grown as a person and as a parent. I also did a lot of work on these relationships, not to necessary heal the relationship for the sake of the relationship but for the sake of my own well-being. I will say the inevitably unresolved family of origin issues will appear in your own new family dynamics. And you will face them as each arises. The most important and useful advice I can offer is just to be aware of them — notice what they are — and then choose from that space how to react to your feelings.

    • But you ARE a know-it-all parent (or at least, more knowing than I am)! I’m sure many a mom will read this and think “oh, poor thing – she’ll see how well her idealistic intentions work once the sh*t really hits the fan!”

      Very good advice on being aware of family issues as they arise in order to face them in the best way…I fully expect many unresolved issues to come back to haunt me – which is why I’m trying to “talk” my way through them now! To my credit, I did my best to work out the latest issues with my sister, but a productive conversation was not to be, so for the sake of my own well-being, I cut the cord (for now…). I’m just hoping that despite my own situation, that I can help facilitate more open communication among my own children so that the same never happens to them!

  3. Impending parenthood definitely seems like a huge kick in the butt when it comes to tackling our own issues. I definitely respect my parents more for all they had to put up with over the years…

    I wish I had good advice for you and your sister… My sister and I had a rough time getting along for pretty much our entire adolescence. She always seemed like a completely different person from me. The situation was compounded by her then unmanaged OCD and anxiety issues. As we grew, things just got better. I don’t know how… they just did. I think we became more similar than different in some ways. Our very extreme personalities might have become a little more balanced. In addition, some family tragedies probably played a part in helping us realize how petty we had been. I’m not saying what you and your sister experience is petty – I only know the tip of the iceberg from what you’ve gold me. I just know that any bitterness or awkwardness between my sister and myself definitely was petty and completely irrational. Each family is different and comes with different problems. So I guess the best I can say is to take heart and not dwell so much on how your children will interact before your first is even born. Circumstances may be very, very different, and hopefully your experiences will give you the insight you need to keep things civil. I have faith in you! As always, I’m around to talk if you want. 🙂

    (And for what it’s worth, my mother totally locked herself in the bathroom a few times… I’m convinced it’s a rite of passage now…)

    • Thanks for weighing in, Grey (older sister that you are!). I actually wish the situation I’m dealing with was more petty (which to me means things like “don’t touch my things!” and “I’m gonna steal your boyfriend!”) but since we didn’t go to the same high school or were anywhere near each other for college (the “petty” years), nothing like that really came up. Based on the out-of-left-field explosion that happened last summer, I’m suspecting there are long-unresolved (and possibly, completely made-up) issues happening on her end…and the more I tried to get to the bottom of it, the more she hid behind nasty insults and manipulations instead of actually communicating. In short, I realized this is a situation best left to the professionals (hopefully, fingers crossed), not me.

      I know it seems way too preemptive to be thinking about sibling dynamics before the first kid is even born…but I can’t help but think that maybe there’s something I can do with the “molding” of this one that won’t result in drama once that second “threat” for attention comes along!

      • Oh I definitely understand wanting to reflect on your life and attempting to find ways to help your little one(s) avoid the same troubles you encountered. I just hope the stress your sister is causing you doesn’t detract from enjoying your pregnancy and your baby. 🙂 I do think parenting styles have a lot to do with how children turn out, and it already sounds like you’re taking action and making decisions to do the best you can!

        And yes, that sort of pettiness is exactly what my sister and I dealt with – the nasty irrationalities of adolescence. For us it was mostly, “I don’t like your boyfriend!” and probably a bit of insecurities on my sister’s part because I didn’t have OCD and thus wasn’t missing school or experiencing the extreme social awkwardness she dealt with each day. So that part probably wasn’t so petty, but it brought out snippiness as a way to deal.

        With regards to just dealing with a situation because the offending party happens to be family – I’ve never been a fan of that approach. Respect has to be earned and maintained. People make mistakes, but when huge ones are made, or they’re repeated, there’s no reason to play nice just because of blood. I didn’t talk to my cousin for years because of the way he acted to me while high on hard drugs. He put me in a situation where I felt threatened and very uncomfortable. My unwillingness to communicate bothered him, but I was stubborn. After getting the professional help he needed, he’s a different person and much easier to be around. A completely different situation from yours, but I wanted you to know that I definitely understand your perspective. Stick to your guns!

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