By Shoshana Hayman, director of Life Center, The Israel Center for Attachment Parenting, www.lifecenter.org.il
It’s sometimes said that parents shouldn’t get involved when siblings fight, but rather let them work it out themselves. Sometimes children do settle their differences. But more often than not, they are mean and hurtful to each other. Siblings are a source of great frustration to each other. Each one is a constant reminder to the other that parents, food, clothing, toys and space must be shared. Older siblings resent younger ones because they think that the younger ones get more attention. Younger siblings resent older ones because they are more capable and get more privileges. Just about anything can ignite an aggressive attack and lots of tears.
Parents do need to intervene and protect children from the insults, aggression and bullying that they inflict on each other. Children depend on their parents to protect them from getting hurt. Part of parental responsibility is to give children the secure feeling that the parent is in charge and will not let the people they love the most hurt each other.
We so much want our children to respect and care about each other. For this to happen, a child needs three things from us.
1. Parents must stay in the lead. The parent-child relationship must be hierarchical, with the child dependent on the parent. The child needs to feel cared for, nurtured and significant in the eyes of her parent. When a child is generously cared for, she develops within herself the capacity to care for others.
When a parent is busy taking care of younger children, the older child is often expected to be responsible and do the things for herself that she knows how to do. It’s important for us to remember that even though she’s older, she still needs affection, to feel cared for and nurtured, and to feel that she matters and brings delight to her parents. Even when she can dress herself or in other ways take care of herself, she still needs the comforting feeling of mom or dad occasionally doing these things for her. When she is filled daily with these expressions of love, she will more naturally have caring feelings towards her younger brother or sister.
Parents can encourage the hierarchy between siblings, too, and endear them to each other by letting an older child know how much her younger sibling wants to emulate her and by letting the younger sibling know how fortunate she is to have an older sibling who cares for her.
2. He needs someone to help him adapt to the daily frustrations of learning how to cope in the world. When he is angry and aggressive, he needs mom or dad to hold him close and lead him to his feelings of disappointment and sadness from the things that don’t work as he would want them to. His friend didn’t want to play with him at school, he lost his favorite pencil, his cookie fell in the dirt, he wasn’t invited to the birthday party, and his little sister can’t go live with grandma and grandpa. Mom or dad have to collect him and make room for him to feel sad and cry over these things. This is what will help him adapt to the things he cannot change. This will help protect his soft heart so that he can feel caring towards his siblings.
3. Help her find a range of feelings. Before the ages of 5 to 7, children have very untempered reactions because they are not ready developmentally to deal with more than one feeling at a time. When a child is frustrated, she will often have an extreme reaction because there are no “on the other hand” feelings to temper her anger. A child needs her parent to help her find her mixed feelings. On the one hand she resents her little sister and wants to hurt her; on the other hand she loves her. These conflicting feelings exist together, and by helping her express her feelings of frustration and resentment, her feelings of caring and affection will come forth and temper her reactions to her sister over time.