Rachel Pomerance of US News and World Report interviewed me about sibling rivalry for her story today on the Super Bowl and opposing sibling coaches Jim and John Harbaugh. The link to the story is here:
And here’s the full interview, with all of the U.S. News & World Report questions, and all of my answers:
1. U.S. News: How influential are our sibling relationships (or lack thereof) in later life? Does a positive or negative one predict success or struggle in our other relationships?
Harley Rotbart: The tone for sibling relationships is set by the family dynamic, which includes parental guidance. Examples of dysfunctional families with siblings who emerge in a strong relationship, as well as examples of thoughtful and appropriately involved parents whose kids end up not speaking to each other, both exist. But as a general rule, solid families when kids are younger result in solid sibling relationships as the kids become adults. Factors that can have a strong negative influence on even those siblings with the closest childhood relationships include financial issues, disagreements between siblings’ spouses, elder care disputes regarding aging parents, and the death of a parent (especially when it’s premature). We also often hold our siblings, as we do our parents, to higher expectations than we hold others – those expectations may be unrealistic, yet failure to live up to them may drive siblings apart.
Sibling relationships, in my experience, are less influential in a person’s relationship with others later in life than are a child’s relationship with his/her parents or with romantic relationships.
2. U.S. News: What can parents do to promote healthy relationships among their children? Are there any specific tactics you recommend or warn against?
Harley Rotbart: I recommend the immediate “hug and apologize” technique. When a childhood fight between siblings occur, it’s the parents’ job to stop the fight, hear both sides, make a decision regarding whether any action by the parent is required to address the source of conflict and, most importantly, have the kids immediately hug and apologize to each other – regardless of whether they feel they owe an apology or not. This is similar to the “never go to bed angry” rule for parents – talk it through before you go to sleep. Well, for kids, the fight needs to stop on the spot and the kids need to be reminded they are, and should forever remain, each others’ best friend.
As kids become young adults and they leave home, their communication frequently lapses as each child begins to navigate the real world. Make a rule that they must speak to each other at least once a week. Preferably by phone, rather than text messaging or Facebook. And check up to see that it’s happening.
And parents need to get comfortable with the fact that siblings with a strong relationship will conspire against their parents, keep secrets from their parents, and diss their parents to each other – these are all signs of a good sibling relationship. Be happy if your kids talk about you to each other behind your back.
3. U.S. News: I have heard it said that one of people’s most common regrets in life is not making up with a sibling. Do you know how widespread such strife is in adulthood and how people might try to recover these bonds?
Harley Rotbart: There are many, many regrets that people develop as they grow older. The greatest and most deeply felt are those related to broken relationships – “woulda, coulda, shoulda” done more or better, or tried longer and harder. The unique closeness of kids growing up in the same household magnifies the regrets felt when the sibling bond is broken. My only advice here is for the estranged or strained siblings to do everything in their power to restore the relationship – everything! That may mean sacrificing personal pride, groveling, giving more than the other sibling gives and more than a sibling thinks the other deserves.
As when kids were younger, apologize even if you don’t think an apology is warranted. I’ve known adult siblings who have sought out professional counseling in an effort to reconcile. Siblings’ best efforts may not resolve the issue or eliminate the regret, but they will help those who put 110% into the effort sleep better at night. Life is short. Too short for profound regrets.
4. U.S. News: When you talk about immediately breaking up fights, does that mean all fighting? I ask because I have heard that it is important for parents to let kids argue and work things out before stepping in?
Harley Rotbart: Each situation is different, of course. First let the kids try to work it out themselves; depending on their ages and the circumstances, that may solve the problem. But, before it blows up, stop the fight, talk it through with the kids, and hug and apologize.