By holding our kids to a higher standard of treating one another, we can put an end to so much of the bullying and unkindness that gets passed off as “typical sibling rivalry”

Over the years a lot of bad teen behavior has, unfortunately, become normalized as simply “typical teen behavior.” A second cousin to this is normalizing chronic sibling rivalry as “typical sibling rivalry.” Parents often tell me that shoving a brother out of the way or making a snarky remark about the goal he didn’t block at his big soccer game is “normal” sibling rivalry. It’s not. It only looks that way because it happens so frequently. And it happens so frequently because we figure that’s the way it is with siblings, and so we let it go.

Parents who don’t want their own history of abusive sibling rivalry to repeat itself or who just can’t stand the noise anymore try to intervene. But most attempts are half-hearted appeals to their kids to either knock it off, be nice to each other, or keep in mind that they are all they’ll have one day. It rarely works.

Will the siblings survive? Of course they will. But at great expense to both, the dominant one who learns that there is a way to capitalize on one’s power without really being called out, and the other one who suffers years of humiliation or frank cruelty and sees his or her parents ineffective in stopping it.

In the example below, an older brother rubs salt in the wound of his younger brother who allowed the game-winning goal in his soccer championship game. HIs mother, however, chooses to react in a more intentional way than is typical, effectively checking the older brother and at the same time touching upon such topics as empathy, self-restraint, and his use of personal power. Those are some very cool topics that don’t often have easy launching pads. Take a look:

“Nice block, Taylor,” says the older brother to the younger one, who is sitting alone, dejected, and obviously ruminating about his goalie error.

Ryan expects the usual: “Be nice, Ryan. He feels bad enough” (a true statement, but with negligible impact), or “Ryan, could you just leave him alone fort a little bit?” (in response to which Ryan, now that the damage is done, silently and smugly says, Sure! and leaves the room). But what if his mom, upon hearing Ryan’s remark to Taylor, abruptly stops whatever it is she’s doing (feeding the dog, FaceTiming a friend) and turns to him, pausing dramatically before responding with, “Wow, of all the things you could have said to your brother right then, why would you choose that?” and then holding the space with the ensuing silence?

What’s critical here is that the question be posed without sarcasm and without any attempt to humiliate the teen; it’s stated simply to hold Ryan accountable in that moment for his treatment of his younger brother. This will be uncomfortable for him, because he had expected a remark from his mom just like all the others she’s made in similar circumstances, which he has easily ignored. But here, in this instance, in this exchange, Ryan is being held to account for his behavior by his mother, who has managed to put all the attention in the room on the boy, instead of on herself as the “angry mom once again telling her kids to be nice to each another.” It’s drama and presence at their best and most powerful.

— Janet Sasson Edgette, PsyD