Relationships formed within our family are perhaps the most powerful human bonds we will experience. In particular, the relationships existing between siblings possess a unique and irreplaceable connection.
Among siblings, there is the potential for a strong and lasting relationship that is cherished and enjoyed for a lifetime. There is also the potential for distance, strife and a foundation of disconnect where there has been pain. How would you describe the present relationship that your children have as siblings? What are your hopes for this relationship in the years to come?
In an intimate family environment, we come to know a model of what it is to connect with others, build relationships and exert personal needs within a larger social culture. Within the sibling relationship, children and adolescents are experimenting with defining themselves, creating social roles, exploring aspects of social power and articulating their needs in the presence of another. They are practicing and refining the skills that will also arise in other social contexts. As children explore and mature in these realms, they may encounter a sense of rivalry while learning to honor their own needs, as well as the needs of others. What do the sibling relationships and/or the presence of rivalry in your home communicate? What social desires or needs are being expressed in the sibling relationship?
As children learn to engage socially, they do so most boldly in the presence of their family. As such, acts of sibling rivalry are to be expected and indicate lessons pertaining to social development are taking place in the life of a growing child or adolescent. However, a consistent presence of conflict indicates rivalry has moved beyond the bounds of learning moments to a state of being in an injuring and destructive sibling relationship. How would you describe the rivalry present among the siblings in your family? Is rivalry present in certain defining moments or as a consistent way of being together?
In posing these questions, it is my desire to challenge the ways that we casually accept ideas of rivalry between siblings. It is to be expected that siblings will experience conflict. Yet, it is vital to examine how such conflict occurs. Are there behaviors occurring in your family that cause another pain? Is there a consistent way of being in relationship that is dishonoring to another’s character? If your children were to describe their siblings, would they begin to speak of them with positive regard or would their description speak to pain, harm and resentment?
I’d like to suggest that your family come together to change ways of relationship that are hurtful, harmful and attacking. If there are behaviors among siblings intended to cause pain, hurt feelings and a bruised sense of themselves, do not allow this behavior in your home. Make it clear to your children that certain behavior will not be tolerated as it is damaging to another and to the sibling relationship. Name-calling, language that attacks another’s character and acts of physical assaults should not be permitted. Where this way of engaging exists, pain and relational distance will always follow.
I encourage you to talk together as a family about the kinds of relationships desired by each member. In this context, it may be valuable to clearly speak together about the joys and challenges or sibling relationships. Take this opportunity to talk with your children about the value of the sibling relationship. In particularly, speak to the effects the present will have upon the future of their relationship. Begin conversation that replaces conflict with compassion, competition with kindness, resentment with love. Inspire them to build a relationship with a foundation of trust, honor and a desire to protect their siblings’ interests and needs. Invite your children to transform rivalry into a spirited and nurturing friendship — one they can enjoy throughout their lifetime.
As a note to parents, in your marriage or co-parenting relationship, how would your children describe the ways you interact in your relationship? What are they seeing in your relationship that teaches them the principles they bring to their own relationships? What are the experiences you have with your adult siblings? How have the adult sibling relationships in your family shaped the expectations or the value of sibling relationships in your home? Parents, the guidance that you bring to your children in this domain is among the most powerful legacies that you can leave for them. Teach them to be in relationship well — with their siblings and all those they encounter in the world.
If you would like guidance in beginning these kinds of conversations, I encourage you to contact your local school counselor, community therapist and/or religious leaders for additional support. There is no greater time to invest in creating the kind of sibling relationships that your family desires, for it perhaps the most important legacy that your family will offer to one another and to the community. I wish your family much success in building loving and life-giving sibling relationships.
Shannon Renae West is a licensed family therapist serving Eastside families. She can be reached at (425) 415-6556.