Question: My 10 year old daughter and six year old son are constantly fighting. My husband and I know this is not a good thing, but we disagree on what to do about it. My husband is very lenient and doesn’t want his relationship with our daughter – his favourite – to change. But she is the one who is always teasing our son and making his life miserable. I try to protect my son, but it’s useless. Our marriage is ok, though we are both working hard to get the children what they need. We don’t have time to really focus on the problem.

 

Answer: I welcome your question and your courage in trying to find a solution to what you can see is an unhealthy situation. You may not know that although we usually hear or read about violence between partners or between parents and children, physical and emotional violence between brothers and sisters is the most common form of family conflict.

            Sibling violence is estimated to occur in 60% of North American families with more than one child living in the home, and “teasing” -- such as ridiculing, insulting, threatening, terrorizing, and even destroying a sibling’s personal property -- often escalates to physical violence. Parents should take sibling violence very seriously, as you are, because of the fallout experienced in adulthood by both the perpetrating and victimized sibling.

            Children who are repeatedly attacked by a sibling are more likely than other children their age to show severe symptoms of trauma, anxiety, and depression, sleeplessness, suicidal ideation and fear of the dark. Adults from high conflict sibling relationships experience lower self-esteem and greater anxiety than those from less conflictual relationships. Childhood sibling violence has the power to shape the adult survivor’s emotional life and worldview. Violent sibling interactions, especially for the child in the perpetrator role, may be a better predictor of later adult violence than exposure to spousal abuse.

            Children who experience these kinds of relationships very often do not disclose their abuse to anyone, secretly harbouring the trauma and its effects for many years, leading anxious or depressed lives and experiencing themselves as unable to have satisfying relationships.

            I do not know your cultural background, but each family relationship develops in a particular cultural context. In fact, cultural expectations have a powerful influence on how parent-child and sibling relationships develop. Experiences of discrimination can also have a negative effect on sibling relationships.

            In terms of what action you can take, the most important is to decide to find a common point of view on the rules of cooperation you want your children to live by. You will need to find the time to sit down with your husband, or perhaps with your husband and a family therapist to develop these rules. When parents disagree over how to resolve sibling disputes, children can decide to ignore parental authority and try to solve the disputes themselves, by fighting. Second, it would be helpful for you and your husband to observe and take note of, without judgment -- and this would probably be easier to do with a therapist -- how you and he interact and communicate with your children, and your thoughts and feelings underlying your own behaviour. You mentioned that your husband favors your daughter, and perhaps you too have favoured one child or treat one differently. Conflict between siblings can reflect the child’s way of responding to power imbalances brought about by parent-child favouritism, and how you solve disputes between yourselves or with other adults.

            Essentially, your goal will be to make it a priority to develop warm, accepting and attentive relationships with both children, and to develop rules for their interactions and resolving disputes, backed up with consistent, non-punitive discipline.

            You may need help with this, but it will be well worth the commitment in the long run.

 

Bea Donald, M.A., R.C.C., B.C.A.M.F.T. Program Manager and Clinical Supervisor of the Family Counselling / Employee Assistance Program at Family Services of the North Shore. Questions? Write This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or call 604-988-5281.