In an earlier post, I wrote about sibling squabbling (Squelching Squabbles). The post described strategies for dealing with the day-to-day bickering so common among siblings. Today’s post is about a different type of problematic sibling relationship which is alluded to in this quote from 12-year-old Jonah:
It’s not complicated. My sister doesn’t like me and I don’t like her. Not sure talking about how much we don’t like each other is going to help. Jonah, age 12
Jonah was referring to his 13-year-old sister, Anna, who was nodding in agreement as he made the comment. The siblings are a year apart in age and a grade apart in school and as different temperamentally as two kids can be. Jonah is an extroverted, funny, rambunctious, athletic boy who couldn’t care less about grades but still does well in school despite little effort. In contrast, Anna is an introverted, serious, earnest, artistic girl who spends hours on her homework only to earn mediocre grades. When the family came into therapy, their relationship was ripe for fighting.
And fight they did. About virtually everything – who emptied the dishwasher last, where the family should go for dinner, who left the bathroom a disaster, and a personal favorite of mine: whether a woman could be an effective president. Their parents believed that the relationship was far worse than a typical sibling relationship. After all, Mom and Dad both squabbled with their own siblings but still felt a genuine affection for them. I agreed with Mom and Dad. Jonah and Anna were engaged in an all-out war and something had to be done about it.
A long time ago, I took a sociology course on war and peace. One idea from that class has stuck with me, the idea that there are two things that will get warring factions working together: a common enemy and a common goal.
So what does this have to do with siblings? Any mother or father who has ever been ganged up on by kids knows about the common enemy. This strategy can work very nicely to get siblings to cooperate. Because I’ve been on the receiving end of a sibling coup, I do not recommend the common enemy for promoting harmony between siblings. I do, however, make use of the common goal.
When I first met this family, I spent several sessions with all of them and with the two children individually just making sure that there was nothing more going on than had been initially reported. No one reported any abusive or aggressive behavior within the family. Both children acknowledged that Jonah spends more time with Mom who is very much into his sports and whose schedule allows her to take him to more practices and games. Anna and Dad have a shared interest in art and enjoy going to museums and art openings together on weekends. Both children are secure in their parents’ love and neither appears jealous of the other’s relationship with Mom or Dad. I could only find one thing, besides 50% of their genetic material, that Anna and Jonah shared: a love of classic rock music that had been nurtured by their parents.
The problem just boiled down to two kids, close in age, with incompatible personalities, neither of whom felt particularly motivated to put any effort into improving their relationship. What they needed was a reason to get along. And since creating a common enemy would likely cause more family disharmony, the family agreed to create a common goal.
Here’s how it worked. For each of the factions, that is Jonah and Anna, we identified behaviors that contributed to the warring. Jonah acknowledged that he brags about grades as well as how little he studies, that he often kicks or bounces balls in the house even though he knows that doing so gets on his sister’s nerves, and that he interrupts his sister and monopolizes conversations over meals. Anna needed a bit more help to identify ways in which she added to the tension between her and her brother. Eventually, she conceded that she constantly corrects her brother’s behavior, often acting like a junior parent, that she makes disparaging comments about Jonah’s sports and video games, and that she reacts strongly to every little annoying things he does. These behaviors we labeled as “provocative.” The yelling, bickering, tattling, and name-calling we labeled “reactive”. Mom, Dad, Jonah, and Anna were all very familiar with the provocative-reactive behavior cycle and all agreed that to break the cycle, Jonah and Anna would need to make changes in their own provocative and reactive behaviors.
Here’s where the common goal came in. Jonah and Anna were not going to make these tough changes simply because they wanted to get along better or even to make Mom and Dad happy. There had to be something in it for them. Because the kids have a shared love of classic rock music, Mom and Dad offered concert tickets as an incentive. (Not all families can afford this; for most kids, a much more modest incentive will work just fine.) For each day that Mom and Dad intervened two or fewer times in the sibling relationship, a parent would write a number, starting with 1, on the wall calendar in the kitchen. If Mom or Dad had to intervene more than two times, no matter who provoked and who reacted, no number would be added to the calendar. As soon as the siblings had earned a count of 50 (that’s 50 days of getting along!), the family would find a concert they would all enjoy and Mom and Dad would purchase tickets. The family agreed on four bands they would like to see.
When I saw the family two weeks later, they had a mixed report. For the first few days following the implementation of the common goal strategy (the honeymoon), Jonah and Anna had been quiet and cordial to one another and had mostly kept their distance. They immediately earned 3 steps toward the 50 needed for concert tickets. For the next few days (back to normal), they seemed to have forgotten about the concert tickets altogether. Mom and Dad called a family meeting and reminded the kids about the common goal. They told Jonah and Anna that they had sought out family therapy specifically to learn how to punish the siblings effectively so that the siblings would stop fighting. (I had convinced Mom and Dad that punishment is not only ineffective much of the time but is coercive and does not promote positive family relationships.) Mom and Dad told Jonah and Anna that if the common goal did not work, they would begin to take away electronics, museum outings, and any other desirable objects and activities.
Then, something began to shift in the sibling relationship (the new normal). Mom overheard Anna say to Jonah when he was kicking a Nerf ball against his bedroom door, “Knock it off. I don’t want us to fight but you are driving me crazy.” And Jonah stopped. Dad reported that Jonah shared an excellent test grade privately with his parents rather than boasting about it in front of Anna. Anna did not react to a sexist comment Jonah made over dinner, and the two kids laughed over his deliberate attempt to bait her. When the family came to see me on Day 14 of the common goal, they brought in the wall calendar and Jonah proudly showed me that he and his sister were up to 10. There was much less tension in the therapy room, and while I would not say that Anna and Jonah were best buddies, I did witness some nice interchanges between them.
It took the siblings 65 days to earn the concert tickets. This represented a dramatic improvement in the brother-sister relationship and a significant decrease in the tension in the household. Mom and Dad had purchased tickets for the family to see the Eagles, and they were all looking forward to the concert. The family had started a second, more modest common goal. This time, the kids were working toward separate incentives, but each child’s success still depended on a positive collaboration with the other. Jonah was working toward tickets to a Sixers game and Anna was working toward a day trip to the New York City art museums. This time, they needed a count of 60. When I asked the kids whether they could keep up the hard work it took to get along, Jonah assured me it would take them “60 days and no more” to earn their rewards, and Anna said “I think it may take a little more than that, but we can definitely do it.”
The common goal strategy requires a certain amount of abstract reasoning ability as well as the ability to delay gratification for a period of time. For these reasons, I recommend it for kids from about age 9 and older, depending on the child. The younger the siblings, the shorter term the incentives need to be. For a family with a 9 year old, for example, the first incentive should require only 5-7 days of good sibling behavior.
The point of using the common goal is to give siblings a reason to stop warring. Once their squabbling has been brought into the range of “normal sibling behavior,” the hope is that a new normal will be established and that family harmony will become the common goal.