By Heidi Scrimgeour
What’s your most memorable moment in motherhood? The moment when you finally held your newborn baby in your arms for the first time, or the precise second you heard the word ‘Mama’ bubble forth from your offspring’s precious lips?
I wish I could offer a similarly inspiring anecdote, but the memory that sticks out most in my mind is the time I witnessed an epic outburst of sibling rivalry between my sons, when what began as a minor dispute over a watering can quickly escalated and ended in actual bloodshed.
One minute they were playing happily in the garden; the next, I was watching in open-mouthed horror as my son’s entire head of hair changed from platinum blonde to vivid blood-red before my very eyes. Half an hour later the whole family was ashen-faced in A&E, marvelling at how far modern medicine has come. (It seems that what once required stitches can now be fixed with much less fuss.) For weeks afterwards my son delighted in telling anyone and everyone that he’d recently had his head glued back together, just like Humpty Dumpty.
Thankfully, there was no long-term damage but it was a defining moment: the first time I recognised that sibling rivalry is a very real phenomenon, and that you ignore it at your peril. (Or likely at great cost to the physical wellbeing of whichever child fails to move fast enough to escape his / her sibling’s wrath.)
Until then I had been blithely dismissive of my sons’ loud and persistent complaints about one another. Regular disgruntled cries of ‘I wish I didn’t have a brother’ should have alerted me to the fact that all was not exactly rosy between my boys, but they’d always been such firm friends that I took their fallouts with a pinch of salt, and presumed they’d work it all out eventually without my intervention.
How wrong I was. Survival of the fittest is no way to resolve sibling rivalry. But that’s the thing about sibling rivalry - it can erupt without warning between children who have previously been the best of friends. Indeed, I’ve never seen a greater display of brotherly love than the touching exchange that took place between my sons on the day we brought our youngest home from hospital, less than six hours old, to meet his brother.
I had expected my firstborn, at the tender age of 21 months, to struggle to adjust to the changes wrought by having a new baby brother, but from the moment they clapped eyes on one another they were besotted. Friends and family members and even passing strangers all remarked on the magical bond that seemed to exist between my boys, which is why it came as such a shock when the care they’d always shown towards one another changed, almost overnight, into contempt.
Sibling rivalry is one parenting rite of passage that not even the weightiest motherhood tome can prepare you for. And don’t all parents like to think that their children will somehow be immune to the uglier elements of childhood? Our baby will sleep through the night from day one, will never have a dummy or watch TV, and will gaze lovingly upon his or her siblings with nothing but the utmost respect and admiration. Parental naivety would be funny, were it not so distressing.
But sibling rivalry can be a source of real distress. No parent likes to think of their children at war with one another, and few of us ever anticipate that the lifelong playmates we create might one day resent each other. I know of many parents who chose to have a second baby primarily so that their firstborn would have a ‘friend’ - never stopping to consider that sibling rivalry very often turns children into enemies.
Following the head wound, or ‘the watering can incident’ as it is obliquely referred to in our house, I finally realised it was time to face the fact that my lads had fallen out of love with one another. I remember feeling actual grief and guilt; I wondered if something amiss in my parenting had created the jealousy between them, and I agonised over the possibility that having two children less than two years apart had somehow starved them both of adequate attention, prohibiting a healthy relationship.
In desperation, I consulted Kitty Hagenbach, a leading child psychologist who works with Yehudi Gordon, a world-renowned obstetrician. Kitty and Yehudi are part of the team behind Babies Know (www.babiesknow.com) a parenting organisation that runs a wide range of pioneering workshops around all sorts of issues related to raising children.
Kitty believes you need to understand what sibling rivalry is really about before you can try to address it. Instead of pouncing on unacceptable behaviour between siblings, we need to learn how to ‘read’ the emotions behind children’s actions, and help children learn new ways of handling those emotions more appropriately.
But I was surprised by Kitty’s explanation as to why sibling rivalry occurs: “Usually it happens because one child feels a parent loves the other child more,” she said.
I think I always suspected that that’s what sibling rivalry is all about, at least subconsciously, but it was really sobering to hear it worded in such simple terms. And when, a few weeks later, my son uttered heartfelt words to that effect during yet another brotherly spat, I knew Kitty was speaking truth.
Obviously, I don’t love one child more than the other, and since both boys seem to feel this at various times it can’t possibly be true. But that doesn’t matter - what’s key is accepting a child’s feelings, and addressing those instead of just dismissing them or tackling the behaviour that ensues.
In our house there was no quick fix to sibling rivalry, but the watering can incident was all the proof I needed that my sons required my help whenever sibling rivalry reared its ugly head. Kitty encouraged me to hover within sight or sound of the boys so that I could stay in tune with their emotional wellbeing, and nip rivalry in the bud before it escalated into bloodshed.
And I am happy to report that we haven’t yet had to re-visit A&E.