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Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder talks with Albuquerque psychologist Samuel Roll

Roll: I’m Samuel Roll and I’m a Psychologist and Professor Emeritus from the University of New Mexico where I worked for 33 years and I’m now solely in private practice as well as an instructor at the Instituto De Salud Mental in Monterrey, Mexico.

Kryder: Sam, what is sibling rivalry?

Sibling rivalry is a general term for a conflict, both conscious and unconscious that happens between siblings, between brothers and brothers and brothers and sisters and the whole combination of that kind of rivalry that takes place in the family and throughout history, including in biblical history, there are indications of conscious and unconscious conflict between siblings.

Kryder: In the Bible, are you talking about Cain and Abel?

I’m talking about the whole set; Cain and Abel, certainly the first homicide, the first fratricide was between the two first brothers and also Isaac and Esau. Isaac stole his brother’s birthright, cheated Esau out of this birthright and then Jacob’s children and then went ahead and sold their youngest brother to Egyptians to be a slave. That’s how the Jews got into Egypt, all through sibling rivalry. So the generations in Jewish history underscore the powerful rivalry between siblings. It’s ubiquitous. It’s so power and so common that it’s in the first chapter of the Bible; a brother killing his brother and whether you think of that as [inaudible] or the wisdom of our ancestors, they underscored that brothers fight, sometimes severely.

Kryder: Sibling rivalry, when does that begin?

It begins before a child is born. When one child is aware that there is another child coming, children often are aware that now mother is less available to them, mother is resting because she’s having a baby and then as soon as the baby comes, many children clearly voice their opposition to having this interloper. Mom had a lot of time for me and now this baby now gets mom and even gets to nurse at her breast and I don’t get to do that.

There’s a story, not a tale out of school, about one of the most prominent psychologists in Albuquerque. She had a daughter, and then when her son was born, the daughter began to be interested in all the things about birth and adoption. She says, “Mom, what is adoption?” And mother explained what adoption is and because some kids have the fantasy that they’re adopted, she said to her daughter; “Are you asking it because you think that you were adopted?” The daughter said, “No, I’m asking because I want to know if we can adopt my baby brother to some other family.”

So she was very conscious that she did not want this rivalry because having a baby does dethrone you. You’re the prince, you’re the princess and suddenly this new creature gets a lot of attention; gets to nurse at mother’s breast, if the baby cries, mother goes to it, if you cry, mother ignores you.

Kryder: How else does sibling rivalry show up?

Oh, it shows up in all sorts of ways. Children will sometimes actually steal the other child’s toys, they will hit the child, they will push them down. It’s not uncommon for an older child when the young child is learning to walk to push him down.
There was one incident where this very enlightened dad had explained to the children about sharing and how important it is to share and the brother and the sister were out on the front porch and suddenly the younger little brother starts screaming and mother goes to see what’s happening. The big sister was eating all of the younger brother’s candy and saving hers.

Kryder: Uh oh.

And mother says, “What’s happening here?” And the big girl said, “It’s okay Mom, I’m just teaching him to share!”

Kryder: Well let’s talk about tips. There are tips for the parents.


Kryder: As well as for the kids. Let’s start with parents; what tips would you give to parents?

Well let’s go back to the Bible. Why did Cane kill Abel? Cane killed Abel because both of them offered the best that they had to God and God said to Abel, “I like yours better.” Now either God did not take psychology 101 –

Kryder: Oops!

- or he had taken psychology 101 but trying to teach a lesson, or our ancestors were trying to teach us lesson; God showed a preference for one over the other.

Why did Joseph’s 11 brothers try to kill him? They tried to kill him because their father Jacob had shown a preference for Joseph and given him the coat of many colors. Now Jacob was a rich man with many cattle. Why didn’t he give them all coats of many colors or not give any coats of many colors? By showing a preference and only giving Jacob the coat of many colors, they sealed his fate and look what happens; we had to go to Egypt, then we had to get freed from Egypt, then we ended up in the Middle East and now we’re fighting with the Palestinians all because of that damn coat. Either all kids get a coat or no kids get a coat.

That’s the first message for parents which is to be highly aware that children measure even the tiniest bit of Pepsi Cola.

Kryder: At what age?

They start at the very beginning. Of course the most valuable commodity to a child is mother’s love and attention and so they are very aware from the beginning. And so a wise parent will make sure that she and he can do anything possible to increase the status of the older sibling. So if everyone is bringing gifts for the new baby, you make sure you get a gift for the big brother or the big sister and say, “You’re such a good brother/sister, I got something special for you!” It doesn’t have to be in terms of monetary things or physical things, it’s just the easiest to use as metaphors. But also with time; if you have a child, you have a four year old child and suddenly there is a new sister or new brother, that brother or sister is going to be aware that the new sibling is taking a lot of mom’s time, so one of the things you do as a mom, one of the things you do as a dad is say, “Listen, while the baby is sleeping, Dad will stay here and you and I will go alone and get some special treats at the ice cream place.” So you do the opposite of what God did in Genesis. You don’t say, “I like yours better,” you say, “You know what? I love you and I’m going to show my love to you in a non-comparative way.”

Kryder: How about peacemaking for children. Let’s say I’m your younger sister, I’m eight and you’re ten, do we do something to reduce our conflict? What do we do?

Sure. One of the things that you do is you learn (and it helps to have the parents stay a little bit in the background) that you have a common enemy.

Let me tell you the story of a robber cave experiment by two psychologists. Their names are Sherriff and Sherriff. I like to say their names because they did all the work. What they did was there was a campsite where they had a robber’s cave. It’s a cave with allure in that area. Robbers used that as a cave and around it they build a camp. So as soon as the children came to the camp, they gave half the children red shirts, half the children blue shirts. Now camping has a lot of frustration and a lot of rivalry. Guess what happened? People began to be against each other based on the color of their shirts.

Kryder: Yes.

And so the red shirt kids were often fighting the blue shirt kids and vice versa, so what they did is suddenly the fresh water to supply to the camp was destroyed. There was no fresh water. So then the task became; how are we, as a group, going to get fresh water. So then the question became not who had a red shirt or who had a blue shirt, but who had a good idea about where we get the water. Who is going to be able to climb the rope over the lake with the dirty water that we can’t drink? Who is strong enough to do that and who makes the best team for solving this problem? When they had a common enemy or a common goal; “We’ve got to get fresh water,” they stopped taking a look at who was red, who was blue and they worked toward a common goal, towards an enemy that was not a human enemy, but an external, non-human enemy and then the camp became much less aggressive.

Now children will find their own common enemies, often mom and dad. Not necessary because they want to hurt the parents, but they want to figure out how to get mom and dad to go for a walk and get ice cream. “How are we going to get the new Xbox?” If you tell mom that “We really are going to only use it one hour a day,” then maybe she’ll give it to us. You work together.

It’s like in a marriage; frustration is expected, anger is expected, some fighting is expected, sometimes you direct the anger toward the other person. The question is how does one learn to be less extra-punitive, less intra-punitive and how do you figure out ways in which you can express your anger that results in less hostility, conscious and unconscious? So if you say, “Okay, we’re not going to have any fighting because I always agree to whatever movie she wants to go to,” well that’s pseudo-agreement. That’s not agreement and it leads to resentment and it leads to unconscious anger.

Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder talks with New York psychologist Jeanne Safer,
author of the book Cain’s Legacy.

Safer: There’s a lot of research that shows that even being constantly told by your sibling; “you’re fat,” “you’re ugly,” “you’re not allowed to go to the bathroom unless I let you,” things like this can have lifelong effects.

Kryder: What are some tips for the parents? Let’s say they’re giving more attention to one child. What would you tell the parents to do differently?

What can parents do? I think they can appreciate the specialness of their children and their differences. That’s what I think is the best contribution a parent can make.

Kryder: Because then the siblings see that they’re different.

And appreciated even though they’re different. So if a father say is very athletic and he has a son who is a bookworm, if he can learn to stretch himself to love that son for being different and for what he does, this can be an enormous precious thing throughout life.

It’s called, among some psychoanalysts, the “gleam in a mother’s eye,” or “the gleam in the father’s eye;” “You’re wonderful as who you are, even with all the things I can’t stand about you.” That’s the thing that gets us through life. No parents think usually that their favoring one child or that they’re giving more attention. These things are done subtlety and they’re done unconsciously.

What I like to remind parents of is that they always bring their own childhood experience as siblings into being a parent so that if they think about their own sibling relationships, that will be a huge help in dealing with their children because what we do is we project ourselves and our sibling experience into what’s going on with our children. You ask yourself; “What was my relationship?” “Was there a contentious relationship that I had as a child?” “How did my parents contribute to it?” “How did it affect me?” “Am I projecting any of this onto my children?” “How do I feel about sibling aggression?” “Was I the youngest?” “Was I the middle?” “Was I the oldest?” “Who bothered who?” “Did everybody bother each other?” So you look at your own history and your history is the key. That is the new thought because there are a million books out there about siblings without rivalry, how to be a good parent and every parent wants to be a good parent. Every parent wants to be the one who –
I was called into a show I did last week and [the person] said, “I want my children to love each other, but in order for them to truly love each other, it doesn’t come naturally. Rivalry and siblings is built in biologically. It happens in bacteria. In happens in plants. Truly! It was fascinating to discover this.

When I wrote my book Cain’s Legacy, I talked to evolutionary biologist and he told me, among other things, about a rosewood tree in India. I’ll never forget its name. It’s called Dalbergiasissooand what it does is the first seed that develops in the pod on the plant the furthest from the trunk exudes a poison that kills all the other seeds. So this is the basis of the “bad seed.” It kills all the other seeds so it can be the only next rosewood tree and this is something that happens all through the animal kingdom and it happens in every nursery of humans.

Kryder: Yes. Well, talk more about what children can do when they’re siblings, when they’re young. What can kids do to make peace with each other?

Oh goodness. I don’t know if it’s so easy for the children. I don’t want to put the burden on the children in this sense because of this is unconsciously set up by the parents. Once you’re aware of what’s going on, you have more possibilities.
I don’t think my brother was able himself to not be my rival. I think my parents should have noticed what was going on. It’s their responsibility. Later on, it became mine and his and that’s why later on in life when I finally figured all this out and I started writing about it, I went to him and said, “We had a terrible rivalry. I was favored unfairly and I think it has damaged both our lives.” He looked at me like I had nine heads, but it was true.

So I don’t think really that we can say that young children can, on their own, fix rivalry because before we love our siblings, we are rivals of theirs for the love of our parents. We learn to love them. We don’t start loving them. We learn.

Kryder: Yes and how do we learn to love them?

Because we see love around us and we are loved ourselves. That’s how we learn. We see our parents being loving to us, being empathic with us. We see connections and the parents can foster these kinds of things partially by addressing and not looking away from the rivalry.

Kryder: You said the parents can, but what if they don’t?

Then we have trouble for life. When I interviewed a 75 year old man whose sister was allowed to run crazy in the family, he said, “Her tantrums are indelible.”

Then we have scenes at the table at dinner where the crazy person or the furious person silences everybody else and everyone insists there is nothing going on and they do this when they’re 50 and 60. This happened to me. It was a very interesting thing when, at the age of 50, I went out to dinner with my mother and my brother who had many problems, was sitting there angry and sullen and silent and for the first time in my life, I turned to him and I said, “I can’t stand the silence. I’m here to have a conversation. If you don’t want to have it, please don’t stay.” And my mother looked at me as though I had tried to kill her, but guess what?

Kryder: What did he do?

He started talking a little bit. I wish I would have done it when I was five rather than 50, but I didn’t know. So this is a very common scenario.

Kryder: Do you have other ideas of what older siblings should do to make peace?

Yes. I believe that it is often possible, but not always possible, but the way to do it is if you decide that you want to try to do it, and I can also talk about how you decide whether it’s worth it, particularly in a serious estrangement, a bitter estrangement of years, but let’s say you decide you want to try to do it, the first thing I recommend that people do is to think about their childhood and thing about it through their siblings eyes. You want to first try to understand what family did this person grow up in. I know we had the same biological parents. I know we had dinner together every night, but we have different relationships with our parents. What was his? What was hers? And then I want to ask myself; who is my sibling now? What is he, as a brother? What is he as a father? What is he as a friend? What is he in all the relationships in his life unrelated to me? And the reason for that is that then you can get a sense of who this person is leaving you out of it and leaving all the struggles and conflicts of childhood out of it so you can get a feeling about that person.

Once you do that and once you do have memories and positive feelings that you think you want to try to express and have grow. Then I always recommend taking the first step which is to go to that person, in-person if possible, second best is a letter, the 99th best is email, 150th best is text. I hate those forms of trying to make contact with a person. I always recommend to go to the person and say, “Look, we’ve had problems; we’ve been rivals and had all kinds of issues between the two of us, but now we’re adults,” and you can say, “Now our parents are gone or now our parents are ill and we need to work together,” whatever it is, just say, “Can we try to have a relationship as adults? I really want to do it. Tell me what I need to do.”

Kryder: “Tell me?”

Yes. “What do I need to do?” How do you like that?

Kryder: And did you actually do it?

You actually present yourself and say, “What’s your view on this?” Usually what you’re greeted with is astonishment. And by the way, this is not a 15 minute conversation. If you have a sibling who is willing to make the effort, you’ve got probably a long time ahead of you to try to work it out with backsliding too.

Kryder: Backsliding?

Yes, these relationships are not just fixed.

Kryder: Okay.

We should know that because you shouldn’t give up if it’s not totally fixed. Try again.

Kryder: Yeah.

You can see that if the person makes an effort, it really makes a difference and realize it’s going to take time, it’s not going to be simple and it’s going to be difficult. I want to emphasize that resolution of a long-standing sibling problem takes two although it takes two to have an actual relationship in your life, but it only takes you understanding that relationship within yourself to make a difference in your inner relationship with a sibling and you can do this even if the sibling is dead because I did.

Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder talks with Atlanta authors and parents Denene Millner and Nick Chiles.

Kryder: Denene, I read this book that had a survey and the survey said, “If the most important person in your life, let’s say your partner came to you and said, “I love you so much! I want one just like you!” How would you feel and what would you do?” Well, I think sometimes that’s what people say with their first child.

That conversation happened around the second daughter because our first daughter was just the sweetest most amazing little baby and when we decided to have a second child, I wanted another little girl just like the first one. Then the second one was born and it was like a knock in the gut. There is no way that this child is ever going to be exactly like the first one. She came here honestly completely the opposite of the first and they’re both great girls, but their personalities – there is something to the idea of nature over nurture. They just came here as two completely different people with completely different personalities, completely different ways of expressing themselves, completely different ways of being and to walk into that conversation thinking that you’re going to make a second version of the first is pretty foolhardy. Within the first 30 seconds of the baby entering the world, Lyla is and always has been, from the first breath, been someone completely different from her older sister.

Kryder: Denene, did the older girl get mad when the younger girl was born?

Oh no, not at all. She loved her little baby sister. She wanted to hold her, she wanted to help change her diaper, she wanted to make sure that she was being fed properly and she would stand there and watch me breast feed. She really enjoyed her little baby sister.

I remember having her take a sibling class so that she would work through her feelings on there being another human being who was getting her mom and dad’s attention. She really got excited about having her “I’m the big sister” t-shirt. I think that we were, just like most parents, really cognizant of making sure that she understood that our hearts were not going to be divided up between the two of them that our hearts would expand and be able to accommodate more than one person making sure that Mari understood that there was another human being coming and that this would be her sibling and that there was some respectability that we expected of her in dealing with her baby sister. We got that for quite a few years. Now I don’t know about today, but –

Chiles: When the younger sister started talking, all bets were off.

Millner: Right, exactly!

Kryder: Well Nick, I’m curious; how big can hearts expand? How big can a family get?

I don’t think that there is any limit to it. I think that certainly our ancestors customarily had big families and so I’m sure that they could speak to this pretty expertly, but as a parent of three, it doesn’t feel to me like there is any limit to it, that your heart will expand exponentially as big as it needs to be to hold, to fit all of the little people in your life and in some ways, the more you have, it almost expands your ability to love people outside of your kids. I think it changes the way that you relate to the work and it takes you outside of yourself which, that’s a human tendency; to become self-centered, to gaze at our navels and “Oh woe is me,” and if you have a lot of little people running around your house, you’re not allowed that luxury to dwell inside your head for too long.

Kryder: Denene Millner, let’s say these children, young children are fighting or competing or teasing, what tips for parents would you give to make peace between those children?

Well, I think that it’s important that the parents actually acknowledge that this is going on and talk to them about it. That’s first and foremost. I am a little sister. My brother and I have not gotten along at all as far as I can rememberand it’s only now that I’m pushing my late 40s and he’s in his late 40s about to be 50 that we actually can have a civil conversation without the snarky attitude that used to come with our dealings with one another and simple conversations. I do remember feeling some kind of way about my brother not liking me. I just felt like he just did not like me when I was little and through high school and college, I just had a brother who didn’t like me. I didn’t feel like my parents really ever addressed it. There was no conversation about how we just did not get along.

I do remember one time us having a huge blow up fight in front of our parents. Usually the fights happened outside of our parents’ presence. They were working and the last thing they wanted to do was to be around the kids and hear us bickering and so they would just go on to their adult corners in the house. But I had this really big blow out fight with my brother and it happened in front of both of our parents and then I decided that I just wasn’t going to talk to him anymore. I was tired. I’m grown. I have no reason to talk to him anymore and so it would have been helpful leading up to that moment when I just decided I’m not going to talk to him anymore, if my parents understood everything that went into the dynamics of our relationship and actually gave their grownup opinions on how we could try to fix it or at least have the conversation about the need for respect or have a sit-down and mediate between the two of us as the grownup’s in the room, as the parents in the room, to have that conversation extend outside of “You know, when we’re gone, that’s the only thing that you’re going to have, you’re only going to have each other, so you better learn how to get along.” Well, it’s one thing to say “we better learn how to get along,” it’s a whole other thing to give us ways that we can get along.

I think with our daughters, the conversation is a huge start for me at least because it was a conversation that my conversation that my parents didn’t have with me and my brother. And so our conversation usually sounds a little bit like; “Hey, here was the dynamic of my relationship with my brother. Here are the reasons I had a problem with him. Here are the reasons why he had a problem with me. And you two need to sit down and discuss this and understand that you’re not the same people.”
“You have different ways of thinking about things, but neither of you are more right or more wrong than the other and when you sit down and talk about it and really understand the importance of your very unique relationship, you’ll understand that what it is you’re fighting about right now is really kind of silly.”

Kryder: Nick Chiles, how about guidelines? Do you guys have family meetings or certain rules like no sarcasm, no name-calling …?

These aren’t things that have been written down. We don’t have commandments on the wall or anything like that, but we do a lot of things together. One of the things that we insist on is interaction, conversation and so we are very keen on our girls being articulate and expressive, not being those teenagers who are allowed to get away with the sullen mumbles and pretending that they’re the only people in the world. We want them to be able to explain themselves, to express themselves when people ask them questions to be able to articulate their answers clearly. So those are the sorts of things that we expect when we have family conversations. It might be as we’re leaving a movie for each person to talk about why they liked the movie or why they didn’t, which character was their favorite.

There was a movie that we just saw that was actually really, really interesting in terms of all these dynamics called Inside Out and it’s a fascinating exploration of the inside of an 11 year old girls’ brain and all of the emotions that battle each other. So it was a good opportunity for the family to talk about a lot of these issues; who is controlled by which emotions most often? If mom is joy and anger and dad is sadness …so that was a good opportunity, a good example of us having this family conversation, but it’s something that we do all the time.

So in terms of rules, we strongly discourage physical contact. When they have disagreements, we want them to try to talk them out instead of yelling and shouting and hitting. Good luck with that!

I think that we try to bring some empathy into the picture, particularly with the older daughter. The younger daughter is very naturally empathetic. She is almost painfully so. It’s easy for her to put herself in the shoes of other people, her older sister, not as much, so we’re often trying to get her to see things from the perspective of her younger sister; the younger sister loves you, she respects you, she admires you, she wants to be around you, she wants to be in your presence. She wants you to like her. Is that a crime? Is that something that she should be beat up for or ridiculed for? We don’t think so and so we want you to be cognizant of that when you respond to her and when you overwhelm her with your sarcasm and you respond to everything, all of her observations with this kind of biting sarcasm or that seems intended to kind of cut her down. As an older sibling, she needs to be aware of how powerful her words can be. These are the kinds of things that we’re constantly trying to talk about with her. The rules are for you to try to put yourself in the other person’s position and to try to understand empathy or where the other person is coming from. That’s something that we push hard with them.

Kryder: Nice, other than fighting, what other negatives occur between siblings that parents have to address?

Well, the competition aspect is going to be enormous. It’s competing for the parent’s affections. Practically everything that they do; academics, athletics, video games, who has a better accent when they’re imitating some other country’s accent, just everything you can imagine they squabble over. There is a lot of ground there for conflict.

The younger one is following in the older one’s footsteps sports-wise and other ways and so I can imagine that there are things about which the older one may feel a little threatened of the younger one coming along and there may be a perception that she’s better at something than the older one was. The older one leaves quite an intimidating shadow because she’s so good at so many things. The younger one is going to be very sensitive to the older one receiving praise that the younger one is not getting.

Kryder: How do you specifically address that competition?

Well, we don’t discourage it because we know that competition is healthy. We’re both competitive people, my wife and I. We know that competition is healthy and that there is no way that we’re going to squelch it between the two of them completely. We just try to keep it within bounds and so we’re aware when we dish out praise, we’re not believers that everything has to be equal. So in other words, if you buy one thing for one, then you have to buy the same thing for the other. If you give one praise for something, there has to be a concomitant praise for the other one. We think that when you’re deserving of praise, it will come. So we’re not going to try to be 50/50 on everything, but we know it’s going to be a sensitive subject, particularly with the younger one or at least she’s going to be the most vocal about expressing her displeasure over it. I think it may come up and bother the older one too, but she probably is going to be less likely to tell us about it.