My daughter feels left out as her brothers are best friends

My eldest son is jealous of his little sister and she is jealous of her brothers’ friendship

Sibling relationships can be far from easy and are frequently subject to tensions and problems. Photograph: iStock

Sibling relationships can be far from easy and are frequently subject to tensions and problems. Photograph: iStock

 

I have three children – boy (nearly 4), girl (6) and boy (9). They all get on very well at times, but often my daughter in the middle gets left out, because the boys are literally the best of friends (despite the age gap).

When only two of them are together, the dynamic is usually wonderful and harmonious. But when all three are there, my daughter is often excluded from the tight bond the boys have, and she feels it very deeply. She recognises that each brother prefers the other brother, and feels hurt by it.

My eldest son has a lot of jealousy from when my daughter was born. She was very unwell for the first few months of her life, and has been cherished and celebrated ever since (she is the clear “favourite” with most of her many aunties and her grandparents, which is easily picked up on, and makes me uncomfortable at times). So she is used to lots of attention, and is a very charismatic and fun-loving child. My eldest is a more thoughtful child, who is much quieter with adults, but is the source of huge amounts of fun with his siblings and friends, with whom he is much more confident.

I can see why my eldest gets so annoyed with his sister; she gets upset or angry when she feels left out and her behaviour can involve shouting, screaming and crying . . . though he can also be very mean to her in what he says to her.

Usually, I will intervene, telling her to stop screaming or crying (“as soon as you start screaming, people stop listening; if something is wrong, use your words and take deep breaths”), and pointing out to my eldest that he is leaving her out, and how unkind it is, etc.

 My daughter articulates her feelings quite clearly after moments of upset or anger. She says her big brother loves her little brother more, and vice versa, that they don’t want her to play with them, and that she feels left out. She would love more attention from her older brother. Naturally, this cycle is continuing, and she has started to get bossy, dismissive and angry with her little brother at times, as he gets older.

I have tried my best to foster healthy and happy interactions with them for years (“kind words”, showing each other how the other person feels, explaining the situation to them both, encouraging or insisting on fair sharing, etc) but I can’t eradicate this horrible situation. It can be very upsetting for my husband and me.

Helping your children get on well together is an important goal to have as a parent. Indeed, helping your children develop good relationships that endure into adulthood is one of the best legacies you can give them, setting them up for a lifetime of good extended family connections.

However, sibling relationships can be far from easy and are frequently subject to tensions and problems. (Indeed, fights and conflicts between children is one of the most common questions I receive in these columns.)

The conflict between your own children is underpinned by many different issues which are common in families such as your eldest son struggling to adapt and share your attention when his sister was born; your daughter’s struggle to fit in as a middle child between two close brothers; the fact your daughter is doted upon by others and gets more of the limelight (leading to resentment by her brothers); and the pattern of all them dealing with their hurts by fighting and hurting back, which makes things worse.

Be on ‘both their sides’

As I have written elsewhere, the most important thing you can do as a parent to help your children get on is to not take a side in their disputes and instead to always intervene on “both their sides” to empower them to sort things out. Inadvertently, when parents intervene they often favour one child (usually the youngest and often the girl) which only makes things worse and leads to further resentment. Being absolutely fair, seeing both sides and helping them sort things out themselves is the key. See some of my other articles on irishtimes.com on sibling rivalry on how to do this in practice.

Support their individual relationships

Three is a crowd when it comes to developing relationships. When all three of your children are together, there will always be a tendency for one to be excluded. Take time to support the individual relationships between your children by orchestrating family routines so that they have regular one-to-one time with each other. In the longer version of the question you sent in, you talked of how they got on best when they were alone and the youngest was out at an activity, etc. Build on this and think what individual connections, interests and activities your children could share with each other.

You want each of your children to discover “something” they particularly enjoy doing with each of their siblings. In one family I was working with when a middle child was being left out in a similar way, the mum arranged for her to go to a tennis class with her younger brother and got her involved with her older brother in a shared household project of decorating a room. This reduced her exclusion and helped improve relationships all round.

Coach your children in resolving disputes

Children also need “coaching” from their parents in order to learn the social skills to resolve disputes. While coaching them together is useful they also need some individual support. Pick a good time when you are alone with your daughter (such as going for a walk together) to discuss with her how she can join in with her brothers without resorting to “screaming”.

In a similar way, you need to have a one-to-one chat with your eldest about how he can include his sister more. In all of these conversations, the important thing is to listen first and to get their perspective. Your son might need to first talk about how hard it is for him to witness his sister being favoured by relatives before he can consider how to include her more, etc.

Email health@irishtimes.com (please put "Ask the Expert" in the subject line)

Dr John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. For details of his courses and books, see solutiontalk.ie.

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