Sibling Rivalry, Controlling (cont.)

SPARROW:
Sure they do. Obviously, children of different ages have available to them different ways of understanding themselves and each other and of handling their feelings and behavior.

But there is perhaps less difference than parents might expect. Parents are often surprised for example at the intensely rivalrous feelings of adolescent children when a new child enters the family, thinking that at that age surely they would have only welcoming and nurturing feelings. But nothing could be further from the truth. No matter how old the older children are, they, in addition to caring and nurturing feelings, will also feel jealous, wonder how this changes your relationship with them and need to test you to see if you still have enough to go around.

MEMBER QUESTION:
My sister and I were seven years apart. Now I have two daughters, also seven years apart. My sister and I always had problems when she wanted to do what I did and have the same privileges as I did. How do I avoid that kind of sibling jealousy in my younger child?

SPARROW:
Well, you can't avoid sibling jealousy -- it's a natural inevitable feeling. You may do better to accept it and help each child accept those feelings than to try to change it. In fact, you may intensify the jealousy beyond the necessary inevitable feeling if you try to get involved in changing the way the children feel about each other.

Siblings who are seven years apart need different kinds of limits, privileges, responsibilities and rules -- although there are some general ones that might apply across their ages. Rather than feeling that this is unfair, you can very clearly affirm that fairness isn't about the same thing for each child, it's about what fits for each child's needs.

Certainly the younger child will feel jealous of the older child's advanced abilities, wider sphere of action and privileges, and may not be particularly comforted to hear that someday she too can enjoy all of these things. She may find more comfort in having special times with you when she gets to have you all to herself.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Our daughters shared a room and fought all the time. We split them up so they could each have their own space. Now they are constantly in one another's room and the fighting hasn't stopped. What can I do?

SPARROW:
A good deal of fighting that goes on between siblings is meant for parents' attention and meant to draw parents in - it's meant for your benefit. As a result, it may easily be amplified when you do pay attention.

Perhaps the most effective thing you can go is get out of the struggle and to say calmly and confidently when they try to draw you into it, "Look girls, I know you can work this out for yourself." Saying that holds them to a certain standard, makes it their responsibility to get there or not and it shows them a kind of respect that getting into their struggles with them doesn't.

The bottom line is to change your expectations so that your goal isn't to get rid of the fighting between the siblings. It certainly makes sense that changing their rooming arrangement would not have made a difference in that.

MEMBER QUESTION:
I am interested in how to help a 14-year-old girl. She lives with her father two weeks at a time and then with her mother two weeks at a time. Her mother now has a 6-month old girl and a new husband. The teen feels left out and doesn't get along well with the new family unit. She tells people she hates her baby sister. Should this be a concern or do we let this ride? I am the caregiver of the infant four days a week.

SPARROW:
What a great question. Blending families is so hard.

Certainly this 14-year-old's feelings are entirely predictable and natural, as hard to accept for others as they may be. What would be most helpful would be listening to her feelings and giving her permission to express them as she has been. Unless there is some sign that she is unable to control her impulses or poor judgment or has major problems in other areas, I would think that allowing her to talk openly about these feelings is the best way that you can help her.

Ultimately it will be most important if her parents and her mother's new partner can also listen to how she is feeling and accept these feelings as natural, although it may be hardest of all for them to do this, as it may seem so incongruous with the rest of their experience with the new baby. You, and they, should also be prepared for intensifying feelings like this when the baby begins to do new, exciting things that capture the parents' attention even more. Soon the baby will be crawling and demanding more attention and that's just the beginning.

I would hope that this girl can let people know how angry she is and how much she dislikes this baby. I also hope that she can feel that these feelings are understood and accepted. She may, especially if she is not pressured, over time come to make her own relationship with the baby.

I suppose in a situation where a child this age had significant problems of her own to begin with, there might be concerns about leaving her unsupervised with the baby. But that would be more likely if there already were evidence of difficulty controlling impulses, poor judgment or erratic functioning in other areas.

"I do think that whether or not life is, parents certainly ought to aspire to be fair -- and that isn't the same thing as treating each child in the same way."


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