Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Sibling conflict and parental responsibility

I read a piece in the Guardian yesterday that has niggled at me ever since. It's this one: written in the confessional style that the Guardian so loves, it is the first-person account of a mother whose two older children hate each other bitterly, and whose constant, frequently violent, conflict has made their family life hell for the past 15 years. The mother writes of her relief at her son going to university, and the hope that there may now be some peace in her home.

If the mother's letter is accurate, the level of hostility she is describing is extreme, and probably tips over into abuse (especially from the oldest child to the secondborn). The 11 pages of commenters - which I only skimmed, as really, who has two disposable hours to read comments on a Monday evening - are evenly divided between people expressing sympathy, telling matching stories of their own poor relationships with siblings or their own childrens' conflicts, and people blaming the parents for not fixing it / tolerating the situation for so long. This is roughly normal for any such confessional: the reliable tribes of Sympathisers, Me-Tooers and Blamers coming out to play.

It made me ponder, though, the question of to what level parents are, or can be, responsible for sibling conflict, especially at the extreme end of the spectrum.

That all siblings bicker / disagree from time to time should be (I hope!) seen as not only normal, but healthy - any person who is agreeable and passive 100% of the time, even with those they live with, has some potential dragons ahead in life, in my view. Early reactive lashing out - toddlers chucking blocks at each other or flailing around with hands - isn't uncommon either, and not something that sends up flags provided it is quickly addressed.

What's more difficult - much more, in my view - is where a family has two or more children who, for reasons of personality, conditioning, neurotype, experiences, just don't like each other. Actually, to be honest, what is even worse is where one child dislikes another and shows it, while the other child continues to love their sibling and seek their attention. This can be because of favouritism, jealousy, parental tactics - or it can be none of those things.

What not liking each other means is that they don't extend the warmth or tolerance to each other that they do to people they like. In cases less extreme than the Guardian's (most of them, I hope), this doesn't mean hourly physical battles or ongoing campaigns of abuse, but it does mean that they will be easily irritated by the other; that they will say more unkind and rude things than they might to a different person; that they undermine each other; that their bickering can go on for quite literally entire days; that they rarely play or interact positively and affectionately; and that there is a subtext of contempt that underlies the way they speak to their disliked sibling that is corrosive and damaging.

I have seem so many families, of all different constellations, over my 12 years in this parenting gig. I have seen families that are functional and families that are not, families where the parents are harsh or abusive, indifferent, loving, obsessed, and everything in between. I have to say, the misery that sustained sibling conflict that is based on dislike can cause to ANY family is one of the worst aspects I've ever noted across all demographics of families.

It's utterly exhausting to parents, it's toxic for all the children involved (perhaps most of all for any children NOT part of the conflict), and it seems remarkably intractable to remediation by parenting techniques. It spoils family activities and holidays, and it centres all attention always on preventing further kick-offs of the conflict. You want to know why some parents "let" their kids spend more time on Minecraft / do more extracurricular activities / watch more TV than you find ideal? I will go to the mat and say that in least some of these cases, the desperate need to separate warring parties is partially responsible.

Oh sure, parents are responsible for children's safety and social education. Yes, you do need to teach your child/ren that hitting their sibling, or breaking their stuff, or insulting them, is not acceptable, and you need to back that up however you can. (It must be said, this gets MUCH harder as children age and / or become indifferent to withdrawal of privileges as a tactic). You have a clear role to play in modelling respect and healthy communication, and expecting this behaviour in your home.

But to what extent can parents exercise force majeure in forming positive affective bonds between their children? If Jenny and James just don't like each other, is anything a parent does able to change that reality? What if one, or both, of them has extra cognitive factors that make them less amenable to learning behavioural norms? (The literature on the early behaviour of psycopaths and sociopaths is illuminating in this regard).

Looking around at the adults of my acquaintance, the norm seems to be polite but not close relations with their adult siblings. I do know of exceptions - people who describe their sibling as their best friend - but I know of far, far more whose adult lives are entirely separate from their siblings, and would not consider their sibling/s as confidantes or friends. In many of these cases, the roots of this are in childhood dislike or resentment, on one or both sides, so perhaps it's more common than we like to think.

I don't know what the answer is, or even if there is one. I do know that it is a real issue, and one that leaves a lot of heartache in its wake.

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