ONCE CHILDREN ACCEPT THAT they cannot send their new baby brothers and sisters back to the hospital, they enter intense and enduring relationships from which there is no escape. Every morning, they must wake up and confront their siblings, along with the fear, resentment and envy and love, admiration and gratitude that siblings can inspire. Their brothers and sisters teach them how to belong to a group of peers-, how to share toys, fun, television remote controls, chores, power and parental approval. Siblings force each other to confront the reality that there always will be others bigger, stronger or smarter than they and that they can benefit from, rather than be abused by, such differences. When brothers and sisters cooperate, they can challenge parents when necessary and help the family to function practically and emotionally. When sibling relationships malfunction, children compete covertly for limited resources and contribute to family breakdown.
The Robbineses came to therapy claiming their 11 -year-old son, Tim, was the problem. Moody and angry, he fought frequently with them and with his 9-year-old brother, Bill. During the first session, I could see why Bill drove Tim up the wall Whenever Tim talked, Bill would smirk mischievously and fiddle with his jacket in a way that Tim found infuriating.
When Tim, after telling his brother several times to cut it out, finally exploded, their father got furious and told Tim to leave Bill alone. When I met with the boys alone, they told me that they both felt frustrated and neglected by their busy parents. The family had moved frequently, and the boys had lost touch with their friends; both parents had demanding jobs, and the boys were left alone in the house every day after school for several hours. Tim took on a parental role with Bill, hitting him and trying to keep him from eating sweets and watching too much television. He felt blamed by his parents for their squabbles and felt his parents always took his brother’s side. Bill, for his part, felt victimized by his brother’s superior strength and had figured out subtle ways to needle Tim and evade any responsibility for the fights that followed. But when I asked the boys what would be accomplished if they were allies rather than enemies, they suddenly became animated and soon agreed that they would ask their parents for more time with them. They also had no trouble deciding that both wanted a dog.
During 10 sessions of family therapy, the parents stopped blaming Tim for all of the battles between the two boys, and began to take more charge of Bill. As the battles between the brothers simmered down, Tim grew less angry and did better in school. The parents said they no longer dreaded coming home from work, and the family found other, more productive uses for the time and energy previously absorbed by battles between the brothers.
In family therapy, I often get siblings together, at least briefly, without their parents, to reestablish their position as brothers and sisters in the family hierarchy. Typically, this quickly reduces the level of destructive sibling rivalry. Negotiating a truce between siblings and reawakening the connection between them can help not only the child who has been identified as the family “problem,” but the whole family as well.
This work is often necessary, because many families pay scant attention to relationships among their children. No matter how large the family, the offspring may act and feel like “only children” when parents emphasize autonomy and individual achievement at the expense of seeing that their children develop mutually nurturing relationships with each other. In some families, children spend so much time at swim meets, tutoring, piano lessons and Nintendo games that they hardly know their brothers and sisters. Other children come home to empty houses run by a single parent or by two parents with full-time jobs. During the day, the children fend for themselves and often find themselves playing parent to each other. When the parents come home, the children compete intensely, if covertly, for their limited attention and approval.
Sometimes, a family crisis can fragment siblings and keep them from being supportive of family and each other. The first few sessions that I supervised with the Walters family were chaotic. The three brothers Sam, 14, John, 11, and Mike, 7 ridiculed each other, insulted their father, and only answered direct questions from the therapist. The boys were living in two foster homes, where they had been placed two years earlier, after their mother ran away with another man. Their father had tried to keep the family together, but had been charged with neglect for leaving the boys alone while he worked two jobs. Sam, the oldest, had gotten into trouble for petty vandalism, and all three boys were doing poorly in school.
During the first session, Sam sullenly propped his chair against the wall and refused to talk until John asked to go to the bathroom. When his father told him to wait for the end of the session, Sam interrupted. “Go take a pee,” he said. “No one can keep you from taking a pee.” His father could barely contain his anger and humiliation.
The only subject that brought any order to the session was that of the mother’s disappearance. Ail of the boys got involved when the therapist asked them how they dealt with their mother’s leaving, and each boy talked about feeling abandoned. For the first time, they listened to each other. In the relative calm that followed, their father was able to say he loved his sons and still hoped they could be together again.
The therapist met alone with the brothers during the next session, and found that a remarkable change had taken place. Sam, previously the most rebellious, had now organized his brothers, telling them to pay attention. He said that after the last session, the three had met together, and he had suggested they give the father a chance. He again propped his chair against the wall, and this time his two younger brothers imitated him, until all three were leaning back. The therapist read this behavior as a sign that each of them had voted, with their bodies, to be brothers and to work together.
The therapist likened the boys to a football team, with Sam as the quarterback. He asked them whether they would allow their father to coach them to become a winning team. They all said yes, and before the father rejoined the session, the therapist had the boys “huddle up” and say collectively that they would “go for it.” The father hardly knew what to say when he entered the room and was offered the job of coach. But he seized the occasion, and soon all four were talking about how to be a winning team. The football metaphor gave the family a language of cooperation. When Sam ridiculed his brother John for being clumsy, his father patiently talked to Sam about ways to motivate his players. Sam listened and apologized to John. A few weeks later, after a worker from the foster care agency came to a session to evaluate their progress, the family was reunited.
Successes like these continually remind me how quickly sibling relationships can become a source of resilience and strength for each of the children and the family as a whole. Considering the resources that siblings provide, they have often been overlooked by family therapists. Problems between siblings are never the only cause of a family’s difficulty, and straightening them out cannot resolve all the stresses that families live with today. But, when family therapists pay attention to siblings and help them to learn to cooperate with each other, they can become part of the solution, rather than a cause of family problems.
Douglas C Breunlin, L.C.S.W., is a family therapist and chief operating officer of The Family Institute. Address: 68O North Lakesbore Drive, Suite 1306, Chicago 60611.