Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Sibling Rivalry

THE BIG SISTER, by Bougeureau

"Sisters & Brothers Who Missed Out,"
by Susan Dunn, Life & Wellness Coach, EQ

Life in the United States -- we keep reading the statistics. Depression is at an all-time high. 85% of visits to doctors are stress-related. The divorce rate is over 50%. We change jobs like we change socks; it isn't the change itself, any more, it's the pace of the change. Our immune systems are being assaulted and auto-immune diseases proliferate. Toxins in the environment increase daily assaulting the immune system from the outside, while internally, our emotions take their toll. Did you know that five (5) minutes of anger will suppress your immune system for up to six (6) hours? The grief of divorce and loss ... will suppress it much longer than that.

Amidst lifestyles that can seem like an attack, we are humans, beings who need anchors of stability, emotional anchors. We were not meant to live alone, and the "aloneness" is not assuaged simply by bodies, it means emotional connection. Emotional connection of course takes time with someone to develop.

We will hope for a permanent life partner, and each of us will commit, at the time, to this, but we can't count on it. 50% of us will lose this connection, which is wrenching. And for those who go through it once, it is likely to happen again, unless emotional intelligence and relationship skills are learned.

If things go according to nature, out parents will predecease us.

We spend up to 70% of our time at work where even if the atmosphere isn't hostile and competitive, intimate relationships are not appropriate. Caring is, of course, and friendliness, but we are there to work, after all, and there's the matter of time. (Though of course I affirm EQ in the workplace; it makes it all work better.)

So who do we turn to for connection? Our children? One of the most dire statistics I read when working with the homeless, was that a child was the sole source of emotional support for 75% of the single parents. This is both inadequate for the parent, and asking way too much of a child. Yes, our children nurture us, but it must not be their job. If so, they will be robbed of their own childhood.

I have midlife clients who are single, who attempt to establish this connection with their grown children, who are glad to provide it, but they end up following their kids all over the country, as their jobs change.

There is one connection that could be sustaining that we, as a society, have been poor in developing: siblings. We in the Western World seem to be particularly adept at setting up competitive relationships. Or, let's say that's the natural state of things with siblings - after all they are competing for scarce goods (parental attention). We have not known how to nurture something different - brothers and sisters who are true friends, who care and take care of one another, who can become a life-long support system. A real buffer in an uncertain world.

How do we do this? Start teaching and living that "blood is thicker than water." Friends, even partners will come and go, but siblings are forever, potentially lifelong friends. To do this, you must live it, which means paying close and constant attention to the relations between your kids. You want to guide them away from hostility, aggression and competition with each other. You want to guide them toward becoming, for one another, teachers, helpers, comforters, ministers, playmates, co-workers, distraction and entertainment. All the things we can be for one another.

To do this you must first use Intentionality, an Emotional Intelligence competency. Intend to create a harmonious atmosphere in your home. You will set your vision and your heart on this goal, and then set about taking the practical steps to make it happen.

Here are some steps. There are others in my ebook, "Turning Sibling Rivalry into Sibling Support."

1. Have gatherings. Call it a "family meeting" if you like. The point is to establish yourself as a group, a group that cares, works together, laughs and cries together, and has a group consciousness or sensitivity. Typically this has been for setting chores and going over schedules. Add to this comforting the person who needs it at the time, i.e., when Marcy complains, "Nobody cares about me. They never..." Get the family together and take care of this child.

2. Show them how. Some children are born comforters and nurturers. Others need to be taught. It can be learned. It's part of EQ.

3. Establish that fights are not allowed. Most parents forbid acts of physical violence and theft of and damage to possessions. Be sure and include emotional mayhem. Put-downs, name-calling and snide innuendos are not permitted, and it is your job to notice. You must be the one to label it for the children, i.e., "That's a put-down."

4. Explain, but also act. There are times to go over your theory and explain why. At other times you simply act, and do so with confidence. "OK, that's enough," is what I use. It means my limits have been reached, the limits I have set for proper pro-social behavior. Move on this immediately. To ignore is to condone. Things can move quickly from a joke to a slam, because kids get carried away. You are teaching them EQ. You are teaching them not to get carried away and say something they will regret. This is a lifelong skills. At the same time, you are teaching them "what they say they WILL regret."

5. Teach self-awareness. "We are our feelings." Self-awareness is knowing your feelings. Teach your child about his or her feelings. Don't deny them, denigrate them or ignore them. Welcome them, label them, listen to your child vent. It's the action on the behavior that must be controlled. Listen first. Then you can move into policeman or therapist. But let the feelings see the light of day and give them names.

6. Teach empathy. From self-awareness, and only from self-awareness, comes empathy. Start early, talking about how their sibling feels. Ask them why the baby's crying. ("He's unhappy. He wants something. What might he want?) Ask them why their older brother just hit his friend. Ask them how their little sister might feel when she got pushed off her tricycle. It is crucial to understand things from the inside of another person. The future social implications of this ability cannot be over-estimated.

7. Celebrate personal victories together. Success is relative. Big brother just got into Stanford; little sister just got her green belt; baby brother just got a star-sticker in pre-K. All are worth celebrating.

8. Be on guard. It's your watch. It is your job to notice. Children can fall into victim-perpetrator patterns if you aren't paying attention. Because older siblings are smarter, bigger and stronger than younger ones, they can become petty tyrants, inquisitioners and terrosrists. Teach them to use this advantage to teach, nurture and mentor younger ones. They will learn there is much the younger ones can give. I remember one time we had disciplined our older son for some teen infraction. He was furious and inconsolable, not open to conversation or soothing. It was baby brother who toddled over, patted his knee and cheek saying "Nice Marshall, nice Marshall" in his cooing tone of voice. Our sons were ten years apart. The older was protective of the little one, but the little one was often his comforter and solace as he bounced against parental limits as a teenager.

I see in my practice an escalation in (1) requests for my advice as Step-Parenting Expert on about.com; (2) an increase in clients who want to know what to do about a hostile sibling they don't want to excommunicate because "She's my sister, I love her"; and (3) those who would like to connect or re-connect with a "lost" sibling.

If you have disordered relationships with siblings, can it be repaired? Yes, slowly, but that's a topic for another article (see my website - www.susandunn.cc ). However, if you're a parent, start learning right now how to do it differently, so this pattern is not repeated in the next generation. That would be such a waste. I recommend you start with my EQ Alive! Program - 12 interactive modules on the Internet to develop your EQ, and prepare you to pass on positive, healthy relating.)

Now I'm going to go call my sister, my favorite travel companion and lifelong friend. I'm single, and I've often been told how lucky I am to have someone so compatible to travel with.

Indeed I am!

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