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It took all of 30 seconds to go from, “You can’t play with me,” to the older sister belting her younger brother on his back with her Barbie doll. There were many tears, a Timeout, and a forced apology, as well as a ban on all play dates for the rest of the week.

Sibling conflict and rivalry is all too familiar to many families. With arguments ending in violent outbursts, crying and an effort to separate the sparring kids, parents often wonder if their children will ever get along. While the cliches in popular culture frequently portray negative relationships between siblings, being aware of the long-term effects of this kind of behaviour is important for parents.

Recent paediatrics studies published in the United States National Library of Medicine reveals being bullied by a sibling can be just as damaging to a child’s mental and emotional health as being bullied by another child in the playground or at school. The home is meant to be a safe space for each individual member of a family. When bullying occurs there, children will feel helpless, anxious and extremely unhappy, which can manifest into more serious issues of depression and other mental illnesses as they grow older.

It is important to note that there is a difference between bullying and rivalry – bullying is more infrequent than rivalry. Sibling bullying has an element of aggression verbally and physically that rivalry does not. Violent words, manner of speech, as well as physical actions and intent are all signs of bullying. Rivalry lacks this ongoing element of aggression and nastiness and, according to Sherri Gordon of Verywell Family,

“This bullying…stays with the victim for years to come.”Sad young girl

Sibling relationships are shaped by a multitude of forces. While family dynamics and composition play a role, as do extramarital factors, every child is unique. Research indicates that siblings can be as different to one another as two completely unrelated children.

A study by Cambridge University conducted on a group of children over five years investigated the nature of sibling rivalry. It discovered siblings have an overall positive impact on each other, even if their relationship isn’t completely happy.

According to the study, mild rivalry between siblings can be beneficial to both children and will not often have long term impacts. It is when this behaviour is sustained and occurs over a lengthy period of both siblings’ childhoods that issues can arise. These negative impacts can result in long term problems such as:

  • Difficulty with relationship-building later in life (romantic and non-romantic)
  • Behavioural problems
  • Difficulty in social situations
  • Extreme competitiveness
  • Difficulty accepting criticism and being a “sore loser”

A healthy amount of rivalry can boost a number of positive elements in the younger sibling’s early development. Older children expose their younger brothers or sisters to emotionally rich language particularly when engaged in an argument or competition with the younger sibling. The Cambridge study found, that by the age of six, younger siblings could converse with their older siblings about emotions on equal footing rather than at the level of other six-year-old children.

Two children playing together

It is in the space of sibling relationships that children learn the most about conflict resolution and prevention, as well as testing their social skills both before and during their primary school years.

Michele Fry of Greatschools.org states, “It’s where children learn to cooperate and compromise – skills they carry into adulthood.” With a sibling, the boundaries and limits of social interaction which are modelled by parents can be tested and experimented. Fry explains, unlike with a school-yard friend, a sibling won’t leave their brother or sister if they get called a name or teased by their sibling. In this way, siblings continually learn from each other about how to interact with their peers.

What is important to note is that this testing of social interaction between siblings needs to be monitored by their parent – what can be seen initially as pushing the boundaries can quickly escalate into abuse if the behaviour continues. In this situation the parent should intervene to reinforce positive behaviours and mediate conflict if the children can’t do so between themselves.

 

The role of the parents

Parents have one of the biggest influences over the relationship between their children. Dr Sylvia Rimm, psychologist and director of the Family Achievement Clinic, outlines what is important for parents to know about rivalry between their children.

  1. Labelling

Referring to your children as the “sporty” child, or the “creative” or the “academic” child can cause significant problems for both children. While this may initially seem like a good way to encourage and guide children into areas they may show a natural propensity for, it can have adverse effects.

Dr Rimm states, labels reinforce differences between siblings and can encourage competitiveness for certain titles, commenting;

“When children are labelled best in a domain, they often do their best to prevent another sibling from encroaching on their domain.”

Michele Fry also highlights the negative impact on self-development that labels can cause. Children who are labelled early will often live up to these labels and be disinclined to venture into other areas. It limits their capacity for developing an identity separate to the one they have had reinforced constantly by their parents and siblings because of the label they were given at an early age.

  1. Gender, age and family dynamics

Gender, age and family dynamics are also important to consider as parents when assessing the level of sibling rivalry and encouraging positive sibling relationships. Rivalry is generally harmless and something that most siblings grow out of by the time they have reached their late teen years. Dr Rimm outlines the following instances where rivalry can escalate or cause prolonged problems for both siblings:

  • Two close-aged children of the same gender e.g. two sisters 18 months apart
  • The younger sibling following directly after a very talented oldest child
  • The “baby” of the family

Two young sisters in grass

It’s also important to remember that siblings spend more time together than they do with their peers. Growing up, living in the same household, going through shared family experiences, all contribute to siblings knowing one another in a way that peers do not. While this can be positive for relationship building into the future, it can also have a negative impact for rivalry and bullying. A sibling will know their brother or sister’s weak spots and sensitivities more than schoolyard friends might.

Professor of Applied Family Studies, Laurie Kramer, states,

“Children can take advantage of vulnerabilities and make the other one feel bad with a word.”

This kind of emotional rivalry or bullying is harder for parents to monitor but can be extremely damaging long term on self-esteem and development particularly if it occurs frequently during teenage years.

 

What are the long-term impacts?

According to Mike Bundrant, psychotherapist and co-founder of the Neuro-Linguistic Program, sibling rivalry and aggression can have the same long term as bullying by a peer. In the teenage and young adult years, it can result in a deterioration of self-esteem and sense of personal identity. This usually arises in cases where sibling rivalry takes the form of frequent humiliation or a desire to embarrass one sibling in a public setting.

Sibling rivalry can continue into adulthood and be a feature of a family relationship that never goes away. As adults, there can be competition surrounding financial and employment success, marital and familial situation, and on the successes of the sibling’s own children.

Siblings are usually the closest and most long-lasting family relationship in anyone’s life. Siblings will grow old together in a way that a parent child relationship doesn’t usually provide. If this relationship can be nurtured from a young age, siblings may have a better chance of maintaining a supportive and healthy relationship into adulthood as they create their own lives away from the family home.

Family gathering

Educational consultant and parenting coach, Chrissy Khachane, suggests the following tips for creating positive sibling relationships:

  1. Support cooperative play.
  2. Teach each child to respect the differences between one another.
  3. Talk through poor behaviour with each child to promote understanding in difficult situations.
  4. Teach your children to resolve conflict.
  5. Reinforce boundaries with private conversations.
  6. Give each child individual attention away from his/her sibling.
  7. Modelling healthy relationships by validating each child’s feelings from time to time.
  8. Teach them the difference between tattling and seeking help.
  9. Give each child their own physical space.
  10. Teach your children to recognise and label their own emotions.
  11. Family rituals and traditions are a great way to foster healthy sibling relationships.

Parents walking with children

 

Gaslighting is a tactic used by someone to psychologically manipulate a victim into doubting their sanity. Gaslighting is a horrific form of abuse and is most commonly seen between intimate partners, but it’s also experienced in parent and child relationships. This is frightening, as usually, a parent isn’t aware of the harmful damage they’re doing to their child’s welfare.

Authors, Damien W. Riggs and Clare Bartholomaeus of a study on gaslighting in parent-child relationships for the Flinders University, Melbourne, say,

“Gaslighting in practice is often subtle and can be difficult to detect, especially in the context of parent-child relationships, where imbalances of power are often a taken-for-granted norm.”

This difficulty in understanding and identifying what gaslighting looks like between a parent-child relationship is why parents are often guilty of unintentionally doing it.

(Image sourced: Pixabay) 

A scenario of what gaslighting can look like, according to 1800RESPECT anonymous counselling services, can be as simple as a mother losing track of time and is now running late to drop their toddler to daycare. It is not the toddler at fault but nonetheless, the mother insists on saying, “We’re going to be late to daycare because you have been mucking around! Quick get in the car now and behave yourself!”

This is a rather common situation in the life of a mother, but according to 1800RESPECT anonymous counselling services, when such words are spoken to a child it positions them to question their actions and teaches them that they’re troublesome and disobedient.

Other ways a parent may unknowingly gaslight their child is by exaggerating conflict. Minor wrong-doings by their child are blown out of proportion. An issue as small as a child lying about brushing their teeth sets the parent off in a way that makes the child question whether there is any sense and logic to their anger.

(Image sourced: Pixabay) 

In response to the parent acting out, the child will start to keep to themselves and steer clear, as they never know what will trigger or infuriate the parent. The child may also begin to start lying to their parent to avoid the constant put-downs, as they feel like they can’t do right by their parent.

Robin Stern, associate research scientist at the Child Study Centre in Yale, identifies these responses in his book,  The Gaslight Effect: How To Spot and Survive Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, as the two warning signs that a victim is being gaslit.

Mocking of your child’s behaviour is a harmful action which is a form of gaslighting. This situation might involve – a child being upset because they want chocolate at the supermarket, but they already have a lolly. The child begins to cry louder because she wants chocolate as well as a lolly, and the parent becomes frustrated by the loud whining in public and mocks the child, “Wah, wah, wah, I want chocolate, but I already got a lolly. Well too bad!”

This humiliates and distresses the child and ultimately, invalidates their feelings.

A parent’s over-assertion of power when their child begins to grow older is another form of gaslighting. When a parent starts to sense their child is making decisions for themselves that they may not agree with, they begin to feel fearful that their kid no longer needs them.

To combat this, a parent might begin to speak poorly about the child’s newly formed school friends by telling them they don’t think they’re “good enough” for them. This sends their child the message that they are helpless without their parent’s guidance. In turn, the child isolates themselves from friends and family.

(Image sourced: Pixabay) 

Self-isolation was one of the warning signs that Stern identifies in his book that victims of gaslighting do.

It is important to be educated and aware of what gaslighting can in parent-child relationships in both large and small forms. 1800RESPECT anonymous counselling services say the effects of this psychological abuse leave a child feeling anxious, insecure, and distressed, which causes them to develop both inferiority and trust issues.

Children that are victims of gaslighting at a young age grow up feeling unsure of their place in the world, which subsequently alludes to them questioning themselves, their worth, and their own sanity.

If you or someone you know needs more information or support around gaslighting call – 1800respect counselling services – 1800737732 or visit their website https://www.1800respect.org.au/

Look for the Good – What is a ‘gratitude jar’ and why do we all need one?

The newsfeed on TV and our social media seem to be filled with disasters on both a large and small scale. We face a constant barrage of awful stories from the most remote corners of the globe.

Gloom and doom seems ever-present each time we power up a device. It seems like we are surrounded by bad news everywhere we look.

I think to be fair, in the past we had less exposure to news items. There was the daily paper or the 6 o’clock news broadcast. Any truly important newsworthy items could be found in one of those two sources.

“The newsfeed on TV and our social media seem to be filled with disasters”

Now that we have a 24 hour a day 7 days a week news-cycle, the content in these feeds need to be constantly added to and updated. Items that in years before were considered local news now find their way into the worldwide news feed.

It has been shown in the research that anxiety and depression is on the rise among all age groups – but particularly in teens. This is a world-wide phenomenon. It isn’t limited to our street, our neighbourhood or our community.

“Anxiety and depression is on the rise…particularly in teens”

This worries me as an individual but it worries me so much more as a mother.

You see, our kids live their lives on their mobile devices – laptops, iPads and the ever-present mobile phones, which means that they see this negative narrative constantly.

“Our kids live their lives on their mobile devices”

I read recently that the greatest weapon we have in our safeguarding our mental health is choosing our thoughts wisely. This resonated with me.

We can choose to look at, and focus on those dark and awful news stories or we can choose to refocus and shine a light on the good and positive things in our lives. I know that sounds like a really big task but it can be as simple as very small daily or weekly ritual or habit.

For years now I have tried to help my kids with looking for joy and light in their day – every night at dinner we each share our “three good things” about our day.

They don’t have to be great achievements or world-changing events. They can be as simple as being grateful for a lovely meal cooked for them or sunshine on their face on the way to school or a kind word from a friend.

All those tiny little good things add up!

So last year we had a tough year. Not massive big disasters, but seemingly many little small scale challenges and hardships that just wore us all down little by little. Wow, were we happy to see the end of 2018!

So over the Christmas break I made a gratitude jar for my desk. My idea was that each time we have cause to celebrate we pull out one of the little tags inside and write down our good thing and drop it in the jar. Once again, I am not talking Nobel Prize winning type occasions.

“Each time we have cause to celebrate we…write down our good thing”

“As simple as  a girls lunch or coffee with lovely friends or getting joy from meeting a stranger’s puppy on the beach, finding some lovely sea glass, watching rosellas on our bird feeder whilst we eat brekky, or one of our fabulous  kids coming home from university for the weekend!”

“I am not talking Nobel Prize winning type occasions…[it can be] as simple as a girls lunch or coffee”

All good positive events – I bought a fab pen to drop inside and added a bunch of blank cards ready to collect our good moments.

At the end of the year (or hey, before then if we are having a really bad day) we will pull out all the little tags and review our pile of golden sunshine!

Re-focus!

My plan is that at the end of the year I will buy a cheap and colourful little notebook and glue the tags in to make a collection of all of our highlights and to clear the jar ready for the year ahead. I can see this jar is going to bring us much joy in the years to come.

So we know that life is full of challenges and celebrations …. moments good and bad.

Life is good, not perfect, right!

Our gratitude jar is not about having no hardship or having a perfect “instagrammable” life  but simply about choosing to focus on our blessings.

Our little gratitude jar has now become a favourite gift for friends and family. The kids drop a few tags into the jar before we gift it telling the person some of the things they LOVE and are grateful for about the person

There is no greater gift than the gift of being loved and appreciated.

Our Gratitude jar is enriching not only our own days but the strengthening the relationships we build.

Kathryn is a wife and mother to 4 children. The family have now settled back in Australia after time spent in Hong Kong and The United Kingdom. Her aim was always to have the children raised in an Australian household – even if that was overseas. The challenges faced and blessings enjoyed whilst living in foreign cultures and adjusting and adapting helped to shape her gratitude focus. Kathryn is a medical sonographer and in addition to working in her chosen profession she also works in the family business. She is passionate about photography and enjoys capturing the beauty of the coastline in her local area in her free time. Her passion for photography and travel have also combined to see her published on the topic in online travel publications.