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Sibling Stories: Moving Beyond the Battleground

A Conversation with Adele Faber

Siblings confound us with their dedication to making each other's lives a living hell. As parents, our feeble brains may remind us that "all kids fight," but our hearts cry out against such unhappy logic. All kids may indeed fight -- we just expected that our children would be different!

Adele Faber (co-author with Elaine Mazlish of the now-classic Siblings Without Rivalry) harbored similar delusions when she raised her own kids. She secretly believed that "sibling rivalry was something that happened to other people's children." Years later, as an author and leader of countless parenting workshops, her greatest gift may have been to simply remind parents that sibling rivalry isn't our fault. That's the good news. Even better news is Faber's strategies for helping children learn to solve their own disputes with our help. FamilyEducation.com asked Faber to help three families with an ages-and-stages approach to sibling squabbling.

The Disposable Baby

The scene: Four-year-old Jason has been very kind and gentle with his new baby sister, Sarah, since her arrival one month ago. Jason proudly took part in a sibling class at a local hospital, joining other "expectant" brothers and sisters who took turns learning to change a teddy bear's diaper. Once the baby was home, Jason loved to help Mom push the stroller in the park, and was thrilled when Daddy announced one Saturday morning, "Let's go get some donuts together, just you and me, us guys." Jason's parents talked with their pediatrician and read several parenting publications about Jason's adjustment to his sibling. They tried to be extra careful when visitors cooed over Sarah and seemed to ignore Jason. They were quick to pull him into the spotlight, telling friends and family, "You should see what an awesome big brother Jason is. We are so proud of him."

So, it was with some surprise that one day, after reading Jason a story on the living room couch, his mother heard him say: "Let's put the baby in the trash." Jason's mom was both amused and alarmed at the same time: hadn't she done everything she could to help Jason learn to love and accept his sister?

Adele Faber: These parents have indeed done everything they can to help Jason adjust, and now all they need to understand is that what Jason is saying is perfectly normal. Hostility arises even in the most loving relationship. The mother's effort is paying off -- here's a little boy who is basically having a positive response to his baby sister. All he needs is to be able to express negative feelings without feeling they're wrong.

All this mother has to do now is deal with what Jason is saying. If she says, "you don't mean that, you love the baby," she is ignoring the child's feelings. Feelings that are pushed aside don't go away. They go underground and are expressed in symptoms, like nightmares, stomachaches, and allergies. Or they get acted out with punches and pinches. The best thing we can do is simply acknowledge what a child like Jason is expressing: "It sounds to me as if you have two feelings about the baby. Sometimes you really don't want her here. And sometimes you sort of like having her around." This acknowledgement of his ambivalent feelings is enormously comforting to a child.

Brothers Up in Arms

The scene: Seven-year-old Robbie and twelve-year-old Max have just come in from a long afternoon playing outside with their friends in the neighborhood. They're tired, and flop on the couch to watch some TV. Their father, mindful of the fact that Robbie spent the morning watching his favorite cartoons while Max was cleaning his room, tells Max that it's his turn to pick a show.

"Try to find something your brother will like too -- and no MTV," he says, before heading outside to work in the yard.

Within ten minutes, the screaming begins. Mike and his wife Sandy both arrive in the family room to find the boys in tears, hurling accusations at each other across the room.

"What's going on with you guys?" asks Sandy.

"Dad said I could watch a show and Robbie ruined it by talking through the whole thing so I can't even hear!" shouts Max.

"No, I didn't!" wails Robbie. "I just said this was a stupid show and he just came over and bent my fingers back like this and IT HURTS!"

"Did you hurt your brother?" Mike demands of Max.

"No!" says Max, wiping tears. "He always says that because he knows it'll get me in trouble!"

"I'm not lying!" sobs Robbie.

"Max -- upstairs to your room," orders Mike, reminding Max that he had told him to find a show both brothers would like. Sandy interjects, telling Mike that he's not being fair, punishing one child but not the other. Mike throws up his hands, tells his wife, "Okay, you handle it," and storms back out to the yard.

Adele Faber: The parents did fine here until they tried to adjudicate the problem and get to the bottom of it. Trouble is, "the bottom" always gets murky. The best thing you can do is acknowledge the boys' anger and then hear what each one has to say: "Robbie, you're upset because you think it's a stupid show, and Max, you're upset because you couldn't hear with Robbie talking." Children appreciate having their positions reaffirmed by their parents in a clear calm voice. Then we need a statement which gives respect for the difficulty of the situation: "This is a tough problem. We have two boys and one TV and different ideas about what to watch. Guys, I have confidence that if you two put your heads together that you can come up with a solution that feels fair to both of you. Let me know what you come up with." And then the parents leave the room. There's a good chance the boys will respond to their parents' challenge and refocus things, from "who started it" to "we need to find a solution." This is work the children need to do. Every miserable situation is an opportunity for kids to learn how to resolve their differences.

Sandy didn't like the way her husband was handling things, but it's important not to undermine your spouse in front of the children. It sends a message to kids that you can play Mom and Dad off against each other. Instead of sending Max to his room, send him back to his brother. Instead of parents deciding whom to punish, it's better to direct kids to use their good brains. If the kids can't settle a dispute, parents can suggest one activity for one child and one for another, telling them both that, "after dinner, let's sit down and work out some guidelines for handling situations like these."

Sibling Stories: New Family, Old Rivalry

The scene: John and Helene, both divorced, dated for two years before deciding to move in together. Helene and her daughter Amanda, 14, moved into the house that John shared with his son Gregory, 13. John and Helene agreed that they would each set their own parenting rules and refrain from disciplining the other's child, but their best intentions gave rise to simmering resentment between the two teens. Gregory resented the fact that Amanda had a later bedtime than he did; he complained to his father and was sullen in Amanda's presence. Amanda looked upon Gregory as her new younger brother, and felt entitled to "share" his socks without asking permission. Rather than yell at Amanda, Gregory confided in his grandmother, who went out and bought him new socks with his own labels. Eventually, Gregory chose to go live with his mother full-time, and made it clear that he felt he'd been pushed out of the home he'd once shared only with Dad.

Adele Faber: If ever the importance of getting negative feelings out in the open can be seen, it's in a situation like this. Telling the grandmother about the socks may offer Gregory a quick solution, but new socks are not going to lead to family harmony. The adults need to say things like, "We're trying to blend two families here, and sometimes it's very hard. Unless we talk about the things that bother us, no one's going to be very happy." Maybe the parents needed to reexamine their plan to "keep doing what we're doing," with John and Helene each parenting their own child in their own way under the same roof. In any event, they're going to have to have ongoing discussions as a group to make things work.

In my book I say that family meetings are very important. Every family needs a regular checkup. Think of it as routine maintenance; families need it as much as the family car does! It's good to have a secretary at these meetings -- perhaps the kids and adults taking turns in that role, keeping track of the agenda and making sure that everyone can speak without interruption. There should be time for speaking, then rebuttal and joint decision-making on solutions everyone can live with. In this family, a meeting would have given Gregory a chance to say, "I really resent that she gets to read at night and I don't," and Amanda could have said, "I don't read that long but it really helps me get sleepy." It's all that tedious talk: "How would this work? How would that work? Let's test these ideas out and when we meet again next week let's see how they worked." Families that do this regularly say they feel closer and tensions don't build up as much.

In addition to Siblings Without Rivalry, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (fabermazlish.com) are also the authors of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk and How to Talk So Kids Can Learn -- At Home and At School, all available from Harper Collins.

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