Parents often get the impression that their kids hate each other. (If you haven’t yet, I’m sure the moment will come.) Usually the situation isn’t nearly as dire as it seems; kids may say they hate their brother or sister in the same way they would hate anchovies on their pizza. It’s an expression of frustration or annoyance that can’t be taken at face value.
Yet animosity between siblings can sometimes reach a boiling point. One mother describes how she was blindsided when her 7-year-old daughter opened up on the hatred she felt towards her 3-year-old sister: “It was like a dam broke loose. She couldn’t stop talking, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She said such terrible things. How much she hated her! How she wished her dead sometimes. I started to get sick to my stomach. It was a good thing the phone rang, because I don’t know how much more I could have listened to.” (Faber & Mazlish, 1998, p. 49)
How to deal with sibling anger and feelings of animosity
How you deal with feelings of animosity can make or break the sibling relationship. Unfortunately, most parents (like the one quoted above) tend to do what most people are inclined to do whenever confronted with an uncomfortable truth: they want to brush it aside and make it go away. This out-of-sight, out of mind technique is the worst way to approach the situation, because it allows these feelings to fester. The only way to truly deal with sibling animosity is to confront these uncomfortable feelings head on.
- Sibling relationships are not all puppies and sunshine, and you shouldn’t try to promote them as such. One of the ways to help children maintain a positive relationship with siblings is, ironically, to allow them to express resentment and get it off their chest. Insisting on good feelings between siblings at all times tends to let animosity fester and creates a situation that gives rise to more bad feelings. Allowing children to feel their frustration and express their bad feelings releases tension and allows them to get back to good feelings again.
So don’t be afraid to talk about their anger. Many kids will worry that there’s something wrong with them when they’re jealous of a sibling or angry at their brother or sister, especially if they’ve gotten the idea that they shouldn’t be. Let them know that such feelings are normal, and that it’s understandable to have negative emotions anytime there’s conflict in our lives or when someone is causing us frustration. What’s important is how we handle these emotions.
- When a child says “I hate my brother/sister,” the worst thing you could do is brush it aside with a comment like “Don’t say mean things like that, you know you love your sister.” Instead, explore these emotions and get them out in the open: “Little sisters can be frustrating at times, can’t they? What’s she doing now that has you so upset? Why do you think she’s acting like that?”
Just be careful not to make statements that would inflame the tension. For example, don’t say things like, “I can see that you hate your brother.” For one, children don’t like it any more than adults do when words are put into their mouth. Second, it’s unlikely to be true (even if they say it themselves, they probably don’t mean it), and such statements are a gross oversimplification of the complex emotions they feel. But most of all, it ends up solidifying children in their antagonistic roles: the hater and the hated. Kids live up to your expectations of them, and you’ve just suggested that you expect them to be mortal enemies.
Understand that hate means something, and there is always an underlying insecurity behind hate. It’s a feeling that swells whenever we perceive someone else to be interfering with our life goals. Your job is to uncover the meaning behind the hate. So ask them to outline precisely what their sibling is doing that upsets them, and precisely how this is making them feel.
- Ask a child what should be done about the situation (aside from selling their sister to a shoe factory in China). Should we go talk it over with her? Is there something you could do so that you wouldn’t get frustrated so easily? Try asking them directly: What things do you think your sister could do to make you like her more? What could I do? Developing a plan of action makes these issues seem less permanent, which goes a long way towards alleviating the anger. It may even help a child see that their frustrations are blown out of proportion.