[ Toronto ] How do they come up with this stuff? Whether that’s truth or more likely, fantasy, it hurts, badly. In Siblings Without Rivalry, Adele Faber & Elain Mazlish, nicely reined-in Alfred Adler’s idea that the ‘will to power’ among sibs was always the big deal. – It depends. Then Melitta Schmideberg opened our eyes to the parentified child who gets to be boss, but suffers for it in the end. Most recently, thoughtful minds like Kristin Caspers and her colleagues have been unfolding mysteries of sibling attachment. One reason it’s still a bit of a schmaz is that we haven’t seriously looked at sibs through the lens of their inborn differences; that first layer of personality which we call inborn temperament. Wouldn’t you love to know your child’s inborn layer of personality? Try this: http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/insights/profile
To get a quick read on each of your offspring, be they alike in temperament or not at all, you can complete the above, New York University 38-item online questionnaire WITHOUT giving any identifying data. Click SUBMIT and you’ll see a four-column chart that just may become a go-anywhere mnemonic for you. (There’s also a teachers’ version, on the same site.)
Temperament is a latin word that suggests different ‘colourings.’ To put this another way, as babies, we come in different emotional flavours. And that, fellow parents, plays mightily into how each of us responds to our own “little, live-in Zen Masters” (as Jon Kabat-Zinn once called them).
Most of us can remember at least one pair of sibs who shouldn’t be allowed to get along so darn well. It makes rest of us feel bad. Odds are that both of them felt safely connected to at least one of their parents. These two sibs are among the fortunate few who enjoy a secure bond(as an attachment psychologist would say). They may have sibling tiffs, but their war games never extend to that classic, calculated, surgical strike against self-esteem, which so shocks parents and dismays peers. A friend who grew up as the eldest once confessed to me that he, along with his second sib, convinced Sib 3 that she was adopted—As if that would be a problem. But, to an innocent four year old, you bet. Their parents dealt with that one, mighty quick. Much healing ensued. And it seems that some sib pairings in this family got a little stronger, once kids realized how serious their parents were, about treating everyone equally.
I SAWED YOU GET BORNED! YOU WERE DISGUSTING!
Why would an elder sib aim so low? Because, at least in the formative years, their own self-esteem is the flip side of their security with parents. The less secure we feel, the less valuable we feel, and so, the more we try to cut that seemingly favoured sibling down to size. Enter parental problem-solving. Most of us will be tempted to say to our child, “That was really immature/low/beneath you/small of you.” Here we go, saying this to the very child who almost certainly feels, despite our most loving efforts, less valued right now. They are just choosing an inappropriate way to fend off that feeling. This situation is so common for elder sibs, in relation to the next child, that most psychologists once thought it was inevitable. (Hence the ‘dethronement’ concept.) That was before John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth changed our view of child-parent bonds forever. As the Gershwin brothers would say, It Ain’t Necessarily So.
“MY KIDS FEEL SECURE WITH ME.”
“So they won’t be doing that.” You may be bang on. Enjoy this great blessing. Your grandchildren stand a good chance of inheriting this blessing as well. Quit reading now and send this post to three friends who are a bit less lucky. In Canada and the United States at least, most of us are wrong when we assume that our kids feel consistently secure with us. It’s tricky stuff, for most parents, to build durable security with each child. It’s especially so, if our kids are born different from each other. That usually means one child’s inborn temperament is more likethe parent’s, while another child’s temperament is unlike the parent’s. Psychologists call this ‘temperament goodness-of-fit.’ Having a difficult fit with our child doesn’t prevent us from building attachment security. It just makes it trickier. Child and parent don’t really ‘get’ each other, at first. A parent with strong emotions may, for example, have to work harder to tune into Sarah, than to Samir . . .
SARAH & SAMIR – INTO THE BREACH
Samir freaks out at the sight of their common friend’s blood in a serious injury. Bravely, shakily, tearfully, he helps open the bandages and dials 911. Sarah thinks everyone’s being rather dramatic about it all. She doesn’t help until she’s directly told to, as clearly and calmly as possibly, being told the exact steps she must take, right now: “Sarah, you need to get a blanket from the closet and come straight back. Good. Now open the blanket and put it over your friend. Good. Now stand at the door and watch for the ambulance. And Sarah, this is going well, because you’re helping.” Neither child acted out. Both deserve equal recognition. Sure, it was harder for Samir, emotionally. But Sarah probably learned more, ethically. She’s now a better team member. Let’s not take that away from her, by asking ‘why’ she needed to be ordered (gently) into it. She just did.
MACKLIN & DION: WHY CAN’T YOU TWO JUST LEARN TO GET ALONG?
Sib to sib, inborn differences can be confusing and frustrating. They have a lot less experience with this stuff than their parents. Macklin loves sports and contests and kids’ novels and chess. Dion can’t stand any of those. Dion draws and paints and asks deep questions at dinner—whereupon Macklin rolls his eyes and tries to leave the table. One of the worst parenting responses we can make is to insist that Macklin and Dion spend more time together, find some common interests or ‘just learn to get along.’ (What does that even mean?) In a way, we are telling both of them both to please, not be themselves. Polite, considerate and distant may all they ever are, with each other, for decades. That is not a failure of parenting. It is a success. If both of them reach some level of security with at least one parent, odds are, they will both grow up to have friends, understand themselves somewhat, and achieve at their potential. As adults, if they care, and they work at it, they will discover unsuspected, interesting aspects of each other—and therefore, of themselves. No blame in coming late to that party. As kids, they simply weren’t meant to be so close.
SOMMAYAH & JULIA: THE PLOT SICKENS
Sommayah (16) and Julia (14) were not on equal footing. Julia was falling behind in school. Her parents reduced her screen time on all devices to two hours a day and bought her the cheapest !@#$%^&*! cell phone EVER, with only texting and calling. It would be confiscated if used in class. Sommayah, doing well in school, had no such restrictions. She loved her sister but didn’t quite ‘get’ her, emotionally. At lunch time, Sommayah neglected to introduce her sister to a group of her new friends when the two sisters ran into them. After a few agonizing minutes, Julia left, hiding her tears. Getting home first, Julia hid some of her mother’s best jewellery in Sommayah’s room (usually a much younger child’s stunt, but Julia was really losing it here). She was expressing her view of Sommayah as seemingly the ‘thief’ of parental affection—and of course, trying to get her in trouble. Fortunately, Sommayah had a change of after-school plans and discovered the stunt before her mother did, but felt deeply hurt by her sister. Their parents arrived home to find both girls in tears, and trading loud litanies of past hurts. They would not speak to each other, for weeks.
Once in a while, sibling rivalry may contribute to truly unhealthy child or teen behaviours. This family may have a need for evidence-based behavioural consultation. (In more involved cases, one child might also have a diagnosable, treatable disorder.) The rivalry itself can be treated too. But it is neither the symptom nor the cause. It just is. When the treatment team includes a psychologist who understands temperament and attachment, then treating the behaviour (or disorder) will almost always strengthen child-parent attachment, too. Then the rivalry has fewer emotions driving it, and becomes likely to respond to behavioural work (or just fade out).
Sommayah and Julia both went to therapy with separate therapists, but Julia, more-so. Both had the option of inviting a parent to sit in, any time. Both did. In two months they were ready to take on full-fledged family therapy with an attachment-aware social worker. Gradually they became peaceful siblings for the first time. One could begin to see that, when they truly need each other, they will always be there.
But who felt they learned the most? The parents, of course. They learned how very different their two daughters’ needs are, in emotional parenting terms. Sommayah shrugs off public display of affection and is perfectly happy just knowing that her parents will listen, lovingly, whenever the need arises. Emotionally, what Julia needs most from her parents is expressed warmth every day, frequent firmness (though soon she needed less-and-less of this) and well-timed, smiling, full-on reminders of parental confidence in her abilities.
Finally, they learned how Julia positively thrives when her different, emotional needs are understood as core aspects of who she is; and who she can become. Julia became interested in social work because she recognized in the family therapist a person with strong emotions very like her own, and these actually made her pretty effective at her work. And oh yes: Julia DID eventually earn an upgrade, from that cell phone.
The above cases are entirely fictional and based on years of clinical experience.
Ken McCallion, Registered, MA, CPsych Assoc (Ontario)