Tempers, tantrums and endless sibling rivalry

Like most silbings, Ellen's children don't always see eye to eye

Like most silbings, Ellen's children don't always see eye to eye - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

SOMETIMES I wonder if the only thing my two children have in common – besides their DNA – is the love of a good fight.

This Easter holiday, the number and frequency of their squabbles has reached epic proportions.

There was an argument about who had eaten the imaginary cookies from the make-believe plate; the disagreement about whether it was better to be a boy or a girl; a heated debate about which superhero would win in battle; and a revolting competition to see who had the longest tongue, which ended in a screaming fit.

They have fought over toys and books, over the TV remote, the comfiest spot on the sofa, who got out the bath first and who had the biggest slice of pie for pudding.

Occasionally the conflict has turned physical, with one pushing the other, pulling hair or pinching.

More often than not there have been raised voices and crying, not to mention a barrage of name-calling.

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There has also been a great deal of “I’m telling on you”, where mummy or daddy has been brought in to settle the score.

The term sibling rivalry was coined in 1930 by the child psychiatrist David Levy, who gave his young patients dolls representing their siblings and asked them to demonstrate how they felt about their brother or sister.

Scenes of sibling carnage to rival anything in the Old Testament was the result, with responses recorded by Levy including dropping, throwing, slapping, hammering, biting and tearing limb from limb.

Levy concluded that siblings are hard-wired to compete for parental attention and that this type of competition is an indisputable fact of family life.

Psychologists of recent years claim sibling rivalry is a character-building rite of passage, enabling children to find their niche within the household and learn how to deal with conflict and empathise.

But they also warn that if it is not dealt with sensitively it can lead to further problems in adulthood.

Take the brotherly love of Ed and David Miliband, for example.

The appointment of Ed as Labour leader in 2010 must have meant huge disappointment for his competitor, David, who last week announced he was quitting as an MP to end the “soap opera” of their political sibling spat.

I can’t help wondering if their tiff started over Matchbox cars. And it is not just the Milibands whose childhood competitiveness has continued into adult life.

There are the tennis-playing Williams sisters, Oasis duo Liam and Noel Gallagher, the novelists AS Byatt and Margaret Drabble, or Kylie and Dannii Minogue.

Clearly the consequences of sibling rivalry can be lifelong.

So how, as a parent, can you prevent it becoming a destructive force?

Recent research on the subject suggests that although mums and dads might be itching to step in, they should hold back in anything other than violent episodes because such intervention is often detrimental.

The study found that intense periods of family bonding (such as during school holidays, when kids are forced to spend more time together) led to tempers fraying more frequently, with quarrels usually occurring around issues of fairness.

But experts said parents who stepped in as arbiters often misconstrued the situation or appeared to play favourites.

They argued that when siblings learnt to fight and master their own conflicts, they learnt the formula for resolving conflicts for the rest of their lives.

This is all very well and good, but if you are anything like me, you don’t have the patience for the never-ending loop of “he said she said”, interspersed with high-pitched wailing.

To be honest I think the exhaustion of being summoned to referee the “I had it first” disputes and breaking up the 20th shouting match of the day can make even the most Zen parent lose it.

I tried to reason with them. I tried taking toys away and turning televisions off. I tried punishments, naughty steps and screaming my head off.

In the end I got so fed up, I separated them – sending one to the bedroom upstairs and the other to the living room downstairs.

“If you can’t play nicely together, you can’t play together at all,” I announced.

What followed was blissful silence.

“Perfect,” I thought, and closed my eyes.

Half an hour later, when I still couldn’t hear anything, I grew suspicious and went to investigate.

I found both children in the kitchen, with the biscuit tin between them.

“We are sharing,” said my son, sneaking a glance at his sister.

“And we are best friends again,” added my daughter.

At the bottom of the tin was the last remaining chocolate Hobnob.

“You have it,” said my daughter magnanimously, offering it to her brother.

“No you,” he replied.

She rolled her eyes. “I said you have it,” she snapped, through gritted teeth.

“I don’t want it,” he replied.

“Have it!” she screamed.

“NO!” he shouted and pushed her away.

And the peace was shattered once again.

Please email me at EllenWiddup@journalist.com or find me on twitter @EllenWiddup

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