Stockholm Syndrome and Other Adventures in Sibling Rivalry

The other day, Jane (6) was being particularly bossy with her little sisters (Emma and Lily, 4), and I suggested that she stop telling them what to do and let them have a say.  Emma piped up and said, “That’s OK, Mom.  We almost like it.”  Perhaps a four-year-old syntactical error, or perhaps a glimpse into the frightening world of sibling dynamics.  Are the twins really almost starting to like handing over all the power to their domineering older sister?  Are their individual desires about to drown in hers, or be squelched to avoid her overpowering negative reaction?  What do I have to let them learn on their own in dealing with their sister, and when must I step in?

A more commonplace challenge is the average sibling quarrel.  In a simple case where one child hits another, the easiest and fastest thing would certainly be to split everyone up and send all parties involved to time out categorically, as a school counselor proudly told me she had always done.  I have found, however, that every fight has a complex story that fits into an even larger story of relationship patterns, and from there to an even larger story about human dynamics in general.  When one sibling accuses another of hitting her, justice would rarely be served by sending just the aggressor to time out.  I haven’t yet found a way around talking to both of the people involved, digging for the triggering events or states of mind, and weighing the facts before forming an opinion about what happened.  In our house, if someone gets hit, it is almost always because she was inflicting some form of psychological torture on the one who hit her.  True, hitting is against the family rules, but subtle forms of provocation should not be legal either.  Much more sinister and damaging relationships can evolve in which one child manipulates another through threats, intimidation, or icy disapproval, causing the other child to repeatedly give in to the dominating one, all without any adult hearing unwanted screaming or shouting.  There is peace, but it’s not a peace that’s healthy for anyone.

Unless an adult is intimately involved in the lives of her children, she or he cannot make these moment-to-moment calls about when to interfere and when to step back.  In both cases, the goal is for the young people to learn the ground rules of human interaction, about appropriate ways to express anger, frustration, and basic desires and needs. Each incident offers you an opportunity to teach, or your children an opportunity to practice, those skills without your interference.  This is yet another in the long, gut-wrenching line of tricky decisions we are called on to make.  Too bad that we are learning these things right along with our children.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sarah
    Sep 15, 2010 @ 23:51:39

    Maybe I should try to bail now on giving Maddie a sibling. It all sounds so complicated and time consuming. I’m tired just reading about it.


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