“Lisette, why haven’t you finished your homework?” Lisette* looks up at her mom incredulously. “Have you met me?” the 8-year-old quips.
Bryce Butler, her mother, feels like a balloon burst in her heart. Yes, she has met her daughter, who makes a habit of not finishing her homework and forgetting what she was saying. She sees Lisette interpret instructions differently, make unusual observations, and not quite “get” things — all of which might suggest airhead. But Bryce tries to not betray this observation to her girls. She doesn’t want Lisette to embrace ditzy as who she is, nor does she want Lisette’s sisters to reinforce it.
“Yet somehow I think Lisette has gleaned from me that, in some sense, she’s not as smart as her sisters,” says Bryce, speaking from her home in Pleasant Hill, CA. “That’s not true, and I don’t want her to claim that or live down to it.”
Bryce is determined not to label her daughters. Not just because she wants them to forge their own identities, but also because she doesn’t want her three daughters comparing themselves to each other and feeling they fall short in some way. This, she believes, stirs up sibling rivalry and, ultimately, ruins relationships.
“Ruins relationships?” Doth exaggerate too much? Is it possible that the ordinary squabbling, competition, and jealousy between brothers and sisters can ruin relationships?
Long-ranging effects — from work to home
Only recently have researchers recognized the significance of sibling relationships. As siblinghood gets more attention and study, it’s quickly becoming clear that the bonds forged between sisters and brothers have long-term effects. Beyond childhood they affect feelings about self, judgment of others, and actions within other relationships — professional, romantic, and familial. Sibling relationships are also linked to health, particularly mental health.
It’s the relationship that forms a laboratory for self-invention and discovery. Sisters and brothers practice their social skills, conflict resolution skills, and perhaps most important, their conflict prevention skills. It’s where they learn to cooperate and to compromise — skills they carry into adulthood. It’s the first relationship where they can choose to be empathetic (or not) or choose to compete (or not).
As Laurie Kramer, professor of Applied Family Studies and founding director of the Family Resiliency Center at University of Illinois, puts it, siblings are “agents of socialization.” Parents teach and model behavior, but siblings become the walls of a rock tumbler who smooth our rough edges into gemstones, shaping who we are.
Experts note that sibling relationships provide important freedom to experiment. It’s often through these relationships that kids figure out what’s good, what works, what’s acceptable — for better or worse. Unlike with a friend, you’re not going to lose your sibling if you call him a name or smack him in the back of the head. While siblings allow the testing of boundaries, it’s up to the parent to makes sure this behavior doesn’t impair kids’ development or cross a boundary into abuse. But therein lies the problem, how is a parent supposed to know when all this normal behavior (which no friend would put up with) crosses the line? And what parenting principles can help lessen rivalry?
Although Bryce Butler may not have delved into the growing body of scientific literature on sibling rivalry, her instincts are right. Experts confirm the connection between labels and rivalry. Labels can increase the competitiveness within a family because each child believes he or she should be best in the family at something, says Sylvia Rimm, who is a psychologist, director of Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland, OH, and a clinical professor at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine. Labeling causes territorialism — where one sibling makes sure another doesn’t encroach on his “expertise.” It also leads children to assume they’re not good at whatever another sibling excels.
Bryce recalls experiencing that very thing growing up. Her parents conveyed that she was “the smart one” and her sister was “the pretty one.” The girls conformed to their assigned identities. “She didn’t try hard in school, and I felt like the ugly duckling of the family,” Bryce says. The labels also caused friction between the sisters. Without knowing it, her parents established a rivalry, Bryce says, one that tainted her and her sister’s relationship well into adulthood.
Despite Bryce’s attempts to create a rival-free family, she concedes that her girls still battle it out on a daily basis. Caitlin, 10, and 8-year-old twins, Lisette and MacKenzie, bicker over iPad time or who has the best report card or who gets to hold Mommy’s or Daddy’s hand. Bryce rolls her eyes at their antics (or holds back her yells), but she thinks the struggles are part of “normal sibling stuff.”
What is normal when it comes to sibling rivalry?
When asked for the expert’s definition of normal sibling rivalry, Kramer laughs. No one really knows what “normal” means, she says. Research has found that disagreements and arguments occur frequently between siblings — 3.5 times an hour when they’re between 3 and 7, more when younger, less when older. But the tone of the interaction — what parents must interpret — can’t be quantified.
Kramer says sibling conflict crosses the line into not-normal territory when interactions deteriorate into real physical violence or emotional tormenting, and it becomes chronic. This sounds simple enough, but day to day, it can be tough for parents to make distinctions.
Brotherly relationships, particularly brother to brother, tend to be more physical or aggressive, but roughhousing has turned into bullying or abuse when there’s extreme, habitual antagonism. Kramer says physical violence can include anything from blows to sexually acting out (such as voyeurism, exhibitionism, poor boundaries around touching, and inappropriately provocative behavior).
Emotional warfare can be more difficult to spot, but siblings excel at it, and it’s very damaging, Kramer says. “Siblings know each other extremely well.” They know one another’s weaknesses and tender spots. “They can take advantage of vulnerabilities and make the other one feel bad with a word.” A childhood riven with such incidents, large or small, can leave their mark for a lifetime.
“I was like the enemy”
Luke Shedd knows this all too well. The mention of certain incidents, such as the time with the knife or the bloody-nose day, sends him back to childhood. His older sister bullied him until he was about 14, when he looked in the mirror and realized he was taller and stronger than her. And yet she still managed to get in a few digs after that.
“As long as I can remember, she mistreated me,” Luke, 44, says. “In home movies, you can see her pushing me or sitting on me, and we were just little.”
She was horribly competitive. “If we played a board game and she started losing, she’d attack — kicking the board, kicking me.”
When she had friends over, she would lock Luke in a room — his bedroom, the living room — and leave him. Sometimes, pretending to be nice, she’d call him over to join her and her friends. And she was nice. For a minute. Then suddenly she’d kick him between the legs and laugh. “Sometimes her friends were shocked and asked ‘What’s wrong with you? Are you crazy?’”
“I was like the enemy. And out of the blue she’d just attack. … She did not like me. That’s for sure.”
There was an incident where she wielded a knife, and one where she hammered him in the face with her fist causing his nose to bleed. “I’m surprised it didn’t knock out my teeth.”
In his case, he surmises that sibling abuse trumps parental abuse in depth of its effect. “Dad abused us, but the day in, day out with my sister made it hard to live each day.” (The link between abusive older siblings having been abused by a parent is well documented.)
His mother did what she could, he says, but she just didn’t seem to notice a lot of what was going on, or she expected us to just take care of it, he says.
Luke’s mother isn’t unusual. In the past, common thinking and advice was to not step in, to let the kids work it out themselves. But no one is born knowing conflict resolution techniques, Kramer says. “It really needs to be intentionally taught.”
Stories like Luke’s point to the devastating influence of a sibling relationship gone awry, especially when a parent looks the other way. The relationship lives on in ways that parents may not consider when navigating (or ignoring) day-to-day squabbles.
“The sibling relationship is life’s longest lasting relationship, longer, for most of us, by a quarter of a century, than our ties to our parents,” write Stephen Bank and Michael Kahn in The Sibling Bond. “It lasts longer than our relationship with our children, certainly longer than with a spouse, and with the exception of a few lucky men and women, longer than with a best friend.”
You share memories and experiences with this person, family legacies, and burdens. It also can be one of life’s closest and most impactful relationships. Luke says he feels this loss. Having witnessed the deep bond between his wife and her sister, Luke sees how his and his sister’s relationship could have been equally supportive.
“We were with each other day in and day out; it was kind of like we were all each other had sometimes,” Luke says. “We should have been each other’s main support, tried-and-true companions.”
So how is a parent supposed to intervene? Kramer tells parents to step in and help their kids work it out. Don’t separate them and end the debate; this is an opportunity to teach social skills, conflict management, values, and more.
As an example, break up the disagreement and ask each child why he or she is upset. Ask each child what the other person might be feeling as well. Don’t bother asking who started it, because it doesn’t matter; both (or all) parties were participants. But also don’t blame both parties: it’s important to realize one child could be the primary aggressor and the other the victim. Blaming the victim under the auspices of conflict resolution can do more harm than good.
Kramer has developed a preventive intervention program to help siblings build positive relationships. Her program, “More Fun With Sisters and Brothers,” teaches four techniques to encourage good sibling relationships: 1) engaging with one another — playing or talking together, etc., 2) taking the other’s perspective, 3) being aware of relationship influence — for example, knowing that younger children tend to idolize older siblings and helping older children realize that, and 4) learning to talk about emotions.
Talking about emotions and needs creates a framework to measure conflict and to then manage it, Kramer says. These skills will benefit them throughout life, from home to school to work. Also, dealing with the emotions builds — or allows opportunities to build — closer sibling relationships.
You have to do it in the moment, while the kids are growing up. It may not work in retrospect, as evidenced by Luke’s still-cracked relationship with his sister.
He says his sister may not even realize, recognize, or remember the degree of torment she caused, but he doesn’t want to discuss it. He says when he and his sister talk, she too often wants to rehash the family’s past, but not necessarily their sibling history. Regardless, she is not saying anything he wants to hear, Luke says from his Pacheco, CA, home. “I have moved on. I am living now, not in the past. I have a loving, supportive family, and there is nothing in the past for me.”
For the Butler family the sibling battles continue, one minute of electronics privileges at a time. MacKenzie skips over to where her twin is reclined on the couch with the iPad, instinctively knowing that any second — Buzz!! MacKenzie enthusiastically hits the alarm and trills: “My turn!” Lisette gives her the stink-eye, but with a huff she hands over the device and resets the timer. Bryce lets out a little breath.
“That used to be a big problem,” she says. “That, the computer, the Wii control, they were always fighting over it, trying to snatch it away from each other.” Then the girls came up with the idea of the timer, with everyone getting the same amount of time. The girls helped determine the length of time, thinking how long they’d get to play and how long they could stand to wait. “There were a couple of tears. It’s hard to give it up when you’re on a roll in your game. But mostly, it’s worked out really well.” They even have systems to use when they aren’t home near the timer. In the car, for instance, three songs on the radio is their measure of time.
“It seems that they respond really well to the fairness of an objective third party,” says Bryce. She pauses and a determined look comes over her face. “I hold on to this victory, and it helps me plan. It gives me hope for our family’s sanity in the future.”
*The sisters’ names have been changed.