Avidan Milevsky Ph.D.

Band of Brothers, and Sisters

Everything You Need To Know, You Learn From Siblings

Children have a natural training ground for learning essential life skills

Posted Jan 06, 2015

A spouse with an uncontrollable temper, an over-controlling parent, a ballplayer disturbingly upset when she loses a game, and a coworker obsessively jealous of a promotion received by someone else at work all have one thing in common: they did not learn essential life skills early in life. Learning how to manage emotions, give others space, deal with loss, and confront jealousy are all crucial abilities for a healthy adult life. These abilities are not natural; they are not innate to human beings. In fact, reacting to tension with anger, control, loss, or jealousy are all primal and evolutionary ways that we would all react unless trained otherwise.

Children have a natural training ground for learning these essential life skills. This training ground is the sibling relationship. Living at home with someone close in age to you who is constantly competing against you for attention, resources, and space is a great place to start learning about your own emotions and how to deal with them and about the emotions of others and how to navigate around them.

The first time siblings fight over a toy, they experience social conflict. Their natural reaction is to grab the toy and emerge from the conflict victorious. If the other sibling wins, the losing sibling emerges devastated. The first time one sibling gets a bigger piece of cake than the other at dinner, the natural reaction of the sibling with the smaller share is to experience demoralizing jealousy. These are just two examples of the many basic social situations that happen early in life with siblings that can offer a training ground for working on social and emotional development.

However, the only way these early sibling situations can actually serve as a healthy place to experience and learn is if parents are there to navigate these situations. Learning from these experiences necessitates parents (a) allowing these tensions to happen and then (b) being there and teaching their children how to navigate these situations in healthy ways.

When children fight, parents should be there to help them acknowledge their feelings and then teach them about sharing. “I know you wanted that toy and you are angry that Bobby took it. What else can you do to try and get it back from him instead of hitting him in the face?” When siblings are jealous, parents should be there to help them label and experience the feelings and then talk them through the tension. “You are right; Jennifer did get a bigger piece of cake than you. You feel jealous. But remember yesterday we were at the mall and you got two scoops of ice cream and she only got one? Sometimes you get more and sometimes she gets more. That’s life.”

Both things need to happen; kids need to experience the negative tension and then parents need to respond. If either of these two components is missing, children grow up not knowing how to navigate social situations. When parents are overprotective and try and shelter their children from any negative sibling interaction, the children grow up being overwhelmed when hard times hit. And if parents let the sibling go at each other without any intervention, the children never learn how to deal with social tensions in healthy ways. At the end of the day, with the right parenting, everything you need to know about life you learn from your siblings.

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