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Sibling Rivalry and how I handle it

Blog Listing

A collection of stories, insights, pain and laughter that details our lives, our experiences as women and mothers and the wisdom that comes out of that.

Sibling Rivalry and how I handle it

Julie Tenner

I'm in the lounge cuddling a feverish four year old,
when I hear a piece of crockery SMASH in the kitchen,
followed by accusing and aggressive tones between my eldest two.

Right now, as I lift my four year old off my lap, my main concern is 'hope that didn't wake the baby' as I make my way, slowly, to the kitchen. 

Did you hear that?  S.L.O.W.L.Y.  

Why? Because slowing down is ALWAYS the answer to big feelings, to anxiety, to overwhelm, to anger.  Slow down.  Literally.  Intentionally move slower. 

As I'm moving I concentrate on my BODY. 


Because forcing my mind to sweep through my body, focusing on the feeling of my body moving, on my legs, on my feet, on the swing of my arms, or the silky movements of my hips, means I am not lost in my thoughts,

I haven't projected forwards predetermining what's happened,

I'm not lost in the past run by my inner child,

I am present in my body and present is where you have an impact.

I enter the kitchen to a smashed bowl, cereal all over the floor, my daughter in tears and holding her chest tightly puffed up so as to prevent any more tears flooding out, angrily wiping the tears away that escape her eyes, and my son slunk against a cupboard, shoulders squared, fuming, his brow furrowed with agitation. 

She's a 'hysterical' puddle of tears and he's a raging bull ready to fight.


All they can do right now is continue to fling more anger, more hurt and more self-righteousness at each other. 

As I enter the kitchen they both turn to look at me; deer in the headlights, ready to throw the other one under the bus to save their own skin.

What to do?  Sort it?  Lean into my anger and yell about the broken bowl and mess they've created?  Punish both of them?  Punish one of them?

I smiled.

I smiled and I took another long pause in silence.

You know who wins a negotiation? 

The person who can withstand silence the longest.  Silence is hard.  Silence is awkward.  But silence is also breathe and opportunity, if we can stay in our own discomfort long enough.  I'm practiced at this art.

I look at the bowl.  I look at the scene.  I look at each of my children from head to toe, soaking them in.  I hold their eye contact long enough to connect.  I create safety in my body first by being present, and then I drink them in.  

There.  That's what I'm searching for; that feeling of uninhibited overwhelming love.  You know, that gooey feeling you get that starts in your heart and swarms your entire body, engulfing you in love hormones.  I get that when I gaze deeply into their eyes, and with practice you can bring yourself here, even in the midst of a triggered feeling.

They are a little disarmed by my smile and warmth, they know 'its' gone horribly wrong and they're both a mix of scared and angry.  "What's going on?" I ask and they both yell their version of events at me, over the top of each other. 

Like quietening a symphony, I raise my hands and they stop....well, my son continues, that's what he does, he squeezes out every bit of his story super fast, just in case he doesn't get another chance. 

Ok.  Wrong question.  I try again.  This time I am specific on who I am addressing. 

I could choose to address the one in tears first, and in our culture that would make more sense, tears seem more worthy of attention than anger, but I don't.  Tears are a sign she's releasing.  I know she's not physically hurting, which means her tears are 'safe', they are a sign that her body is releasing stress hormones and big feelings.  The one who is a bundle of pent up emotion that as yet has not 'exploded' is more 'dangerous' to me than the one who, in a way, is sorting herself out.  So I move my focus towards him.

"Heath" I say "I can see you're really irritated and annoyed, why?" 

Heath proceeds to give me his edited version of events where she's wrong and he's right.  
"Ok" I respond "why are you irritated?"

Heath: "because she's so annoying! And she's irritating me!"
Me: "why is she annoying?"
Heath: "because she is!" 
He flicks a look at me and I give him one of those one-eyebrow-raises that says "c'mon, that's cheap", only silently.  He knows.
He continues:  "And!  She kept saying yes you did, yes you did, yes you did....over and over without a break, when I already said I didn't eat the chips!! She JUST SO ANNOYING!!!"
Me: "ahhhh, so are you hurt that she was accusing you of being a liar?"
Heath: *Huff* "Yes.  So I flicked her."

I turned to Jade.  "Why are you so upset?"
A flurry of tears erupts as she forces out "Because he went like *this* and flicked me, and then flicked me again, and then I got really scared, and thought maybe he was going to hit me or something!!"  And out comes all the pent up 'puffiness', pouring out of her eyes.   She sobs until all that tension she was holding onto is released.  Her shoulders slump back down into a relaxed body and I continue to focus my loving gaze upon her.  She looks at me and takes a big breath.


I turn to Heath.  "Do you hear what she's saying?  She felt physically intimidated by you.  When you hurt someone's body you also hurt their heart, and in this instance she felt so overpowered by you, she got scared.  That's not ok mate" .  We chewed that over a little until I felt like Heath understood what impact his behaviour had had and I could see Jade had moved from defensive body language, to feeling heard and tender.

I look back to Jade "But Jade, you knew exactly what you were doing.  You knew how far you were pushing him and you know your words are what get him.  So you too were intimidating him in a different way, and that's not ok."  I look back to Heath " But Heath, that doesn't make what you did right".

"Here's the thing. 
You two know each other SO well,
you know EXACTLY what buttons to press to get an emotional response from the other. 

When you do that, when you push those buttons,
that person goes into overwhelm. 

Jade's overwhelm manifests as anxiety and she cries.
Heath's overwhelm manifests as anger and he gets physical.
In both ways you are flooded with stress hormones and your brain goes 'off line'. 

They are two sides of the same coin. 

When you are hurting Jade, you push it inwards
When you are hurting Heath, you push it outwards

You are actually both feeling exactly the same,
but one is inward directed and the other uses those around them to release those feelings. 

But Heath, it is not ok to take your hurt out on those around you,
it is your responsibility to work through your own feelings..."

We talk about that for a while.  I ask them to repeat back to me what they've understood, so I know they've heard me.  They both nail it.  

Heath has softened, he's looking straight in my eyes and then to his sister.  
Jade has calmed, she's looking from my eyes to Heaths.  
They get it.  They feel heard and they both understand the other.  So now onto repair.

"What do you think needs to happen now?" I ask.

"Clean up" says Jade.  "Say sorry" says Heath...

Ahhhhh.  The bliss that floods my body when they come back 'on line' and into connection with each other. 

When given an opportunity for respect, for understanding and ownership, our kids CAN and will find their way back to balance and restoration. 

It is with this in mind that I though I'd share a few tidbits from my own family expectations and agreements...and what I've learned along the way.

It's hard when one of your loves hurts another of your loves...especially when its a younger one! But here are a few things to consider:

  • It all comes round.  That 'innocent' younger child, will one day turn around and be the aggressor, not the victim. So it helps to explain how the 'aggressor' is feeling and why they acted out, after empathising with the 'victim', of course. It also helps to have this foresight, one day this will be them too, so don't get too 'sucked into' the 'poor them' story (which of course, is ours to own)
  • I personally don't like the word "try"; it's a stagnant state and avoids ownership (which you know, I'm big on) - DO or DO NOT. You can't *try* to pick up a chair... so don't *try* to be kind.  As a family leader, be clear in your rules/expectations, firm in their upkeep, but not punishing when it goes wrong; it's just another learning spilling a drink, they can learn where the towels are and how to clean it up, they also learn about consequences of actions and choices.  
  • Hurt people hurt.  
  • This is why I choose acts of service.  I don't need to punish them, they are already punishing themselves with withdrawal from love/family, anger and guilt. I don't need to reduce the pleasure in their lives even further than they already are, I just need to teach them how to 'clean it up' afterwards.  

    This way they have a toolkit to:
    1) own their choice .
    2) understand its 'natural' consequences
    3) feel into their 'why' and how it feels when they make that particular choice for them and those around them
    4) have a way to come back 'into the fold', back into connection with their authentic self and loving relationships.

Acts of service, adds in, it doesn't take away
It focuses on 'how to repair' and comes from a place of ownership and empathy. 

Owning what you've done, the choices you made and the effect they had on others, is far more painful than any punishment I could give.  In this way, the choices they make in the future come from a place of authenticity and a sense of knowing what's right, not out of a fear of punishment.

When my kids were little, we had family rules up on a 'poster' we had made together after discussing them...along with the sentences they could use when they were 'in repair'.  Now they are just implicit and I guess we revisit them every time someone 'wanders'. Ours are:

  • RESPECT - for self and others. This means speaking respectfully, acting respectfully, honouring your divine 'vessel' and those around you. When we are disrespectful, owning our choice to be, and then bringing back the respect for self and others by owning it and apologising/repairing.
  • RESPECT - for property. We work hard to earn the 'things' we have, so we respect the work involved in them for us and other people/places. So we don't break/ruin things, we don't throw things, we don't kick things that can break. We don't stand on tables/furniture etc. We respect other places/peoples rules (within reason).
  • OUR FEELINGS ARE OURS TO OWN - No one can MAKE US feel anything, that is a choice we have made to make it mean something, or to feel resentful about what they've triggered for us. So we sort ourselves out FIRST, and then we can communicate with others about how we're feeling.

    *Cue way back to balance. If we've acted out, we repair and we seek to be heard (by using I statements) so we can feel honoured.

I think that's pretty much what all our 'house rules' boil down to. Ownership and respect. 

And when they don't want to listen to 'reason'?

They rarely do in the moment!  So expect it!  All my kids at various times don't want to listen, I've gotten fingers in ears, "blah blah blah", talkback etc! I take this as a sign, that they are hurting too much on the inside; they're IN the storm, so there's no point in having a discussion right now. The focus becomes how to help them move those feelings.

Sometimes this involves actively seeking eye contact and touch to 'trigger' a release (they're just trying desperately to 'cap' it at the moment).  Sometimes I will firmly lay down the law "I'm feeling really disrespected right now, so I'm going calm down and I want you to think about what you can do for you" or simply "It is NOT ok to speak to me like that. Try again" .  This usually either triggers a release or a recognition that they've gone too far and they themselves pull it back/seek balance etc.  This takes you owning your sovereignty.  People will only treat you how you expect to be treated.  If anyone crosses a line, it is your responsibility to reign it in.  Pull out your inner Temptress or Warrior Woman!

What I usually talk about after we've been through a period of communication avoidance or shutdown, is have a discussion around why they felt they needed to avoid the 'pain' of vulnerability and talking.  I help them understand the concept of their actions were a way to avoid the perceived 'pain' of actually having the conversation at that point in time.  The truth is that having the hard conversations later, often makes it worse, because there's usually more people involved and more repair conversations involved...and possibly more acts of service!  Take the 'pain' now, or take it later - either way you don't 'escape' it and that is an important life lesson; that their behaviour is a way of avoiding a pain they *think* at the time is greater than the pain they are causing in their actions....which of course, its not!

I know when your kids are little, it can seem as though you'll never get there, or that these concepts are 'too big' for them.  However, remember everything that has lasting impact is about the 'tiny conversations', not the one big one.  It's the frequent small conversations that stack, one upon the other, that last a lifetime. 

Begin small and stack explanations as they get older.  The fundamental family values always stay the same, but the explanations expand to include much more depth and insight...until one day, you're standing on the 'side lines' watching your child negotiate their own social dynamics with grace, or reading a story they've written where you can 'see' the fusion of everything you've taught them.  You'll take a sigh of relief, and possibly take a moment for a personal high-five for all the hard slog you know you've all been through to get there and then you'll realise they were always listening and this mothering gig is pretty profound....and then you'll start the conversations again!

If you're ready to delve into your own triggers and dynamics to expand both your own capacity and change what's possible in your family, then please check out our online program Loathing to Loving - 5 weeks, 3 times a year, you go online with us to workshop through your life, your challenges and your dynamics.

You may also be interested in our Transitions Toolkit, a downloadable eBook for dealing with all sorts of beginnings and endings with your children.

Julie Tenner is Co-founder of Nourishing The Mother and is The Pleasure Nutritionist. Julie is a Naturopath, specialising in women’s and children's health, with specific focus on awakening women to their full potential – health for the mind, body and soul – creating lasting life change for you and your family by “coming home” to your magnificence.