Kelli Janysek, 31, was an only child for five years. Then, her brother was born, and her world turned upside down.
“He was born with epilepsy and a stomach muscle issue which required surgery at birth,” she discloses. “His epilepsy was very severe as an infant and toddler (grand mal seizures, constant staring spells, etc.). My mom always says I was the best helper and big sister. But my childhood changed in an instant and the only thing I could process was the addition of my brother. I obviously was too young to comprehend the complexities of his medical situation, but I ended up with a lot of resentment which also turned into aggression.”
Sibling conflict is not uncommon. Population research studies suggest that half of all children have experienced persistent sibling conflict. Helen Wheeler, Licensed Professional Counselor at The Center for Families, agrees that sibling conflict is something she sees quite often. “When we discuss relationships between siblings, we look at whether it is sibling rivalry or whether it is sibling bullying,” she explains. “In any event, conflict between siblings is quite common.”
Wheeler has noticed in her work with families that sibling conflict seems to be more common in larger families, and with children closest in age. “Children of the same sex tend to compete more,” she goes on to say. “Parental unavailability, lack of supervision and unequal treatment of siblings all contribute to conflict or bullying, as do unclear expectations, lack of warmth, [and] harsh parenting. Making older siblings take care of younger siblings [is also] linked to more bullying or rivalry.”
For Janvsek, it wasn’t until her aggressive behavior as a child pushed her parents to their breaking point that she found herself in a supportive, therapeutic relationship where she could finally feel understood. “Therapy gave me an outlet to be able to freely open up about all the negative views I had about things that changed when my brother was born,” she shares. Now, as a nanny with a passion for learning about child development and caregiving, she can look back on her personal experience with sibling conflict with fresh understanding and empathy. “I’d say one of the most important things I’ve learned is creating a safe space for children to talk and feel they are being heard,” she reflects.
Not only has Janvsek been intentional about creating opportunities for the children she cares for to express their thoughts and feelings, but she also finds creative ways to help the children in her care to expand their emotional awareness. When picking up the children from school, she says she plays music that “we could listen while driving and talk about what the song meant and the emotions behind the lyrics. This was a super easy way to get them talking about emotions.”
Wheeler agrees that. “Fostering social and emotional competencies, including emotional regulation, as well as communication and interpersonal skills” can strengthen sibling relationships and prevent conflict. She also encourages parents to strengthen their ability to mediate disputes that arise among their children, which involves addressing the cause of the conflict and listening to both children with openness and empathy. Wheeler also stresses the importance of not playing favorites, and avoiding making comparisons between siblings.
Being curious about a child’s day by asking them to share something that made them feel happy, something that brought joy to a classmate, or to brainstorm ways to support other children in the class who might have felt sad or angry that day are ways Janvsek encourages the emotional insight of the children she has worked with. Approaching siblings as a “team” by calling a “team meeting” when needed to discuss conflicts that arise, has helped her bring siblings together.
Getting creative by making sibling teamwork a game has also been a strategy Janvsek has used in the past. “I would be cleaning the entire kitchen after dinner while they had a checklist they needed to accomplish together to beat me (bringing down dirty laundry, tidying rooms, setting out school clothes for the next day),” she shares. “Watching them hold onto this mentality and be a team and work together out in the real world was one of my best feelings as a nanny. I’d see them work together in the pool, at tennis lessons, getting in the car after school. Little lessons daily turn into giant life lessons over time.”
SOURCE: .postandcourier.com, Heather Artushin