Reluctant Referees

  • A seasoned East Coast corporate lawyer (let's call him Jack) is accustomed to getting his way. But at the mention of his older brother, he becomes agitated and taps a table furiously. Jack's brother pummeled him regularly when he was a child, and though his parents were aware of the hostility, they never intervened. His mother told him that someday he'd be big enough to fight his own battles. "I don't know what she was thinking, and I don't know if my father knew," says Jack, 44, who hasn't spoken with his brother in years. "But it would have been great if they had been able to take charge."

    Though sibling rivalry is an age-old obsession, surprisingly few formal studies have probed the psychological impact of conflict between brothers and sisters; nor have they examined how parents arbitrate those disputes. Popular lore often has it that it's best for siblings to sort it out themselves. A study published this month in Developmental Psychology found that most parents tend to follow that policy, but not because they think it's most effective. Parents have a sense that they should be intervening, especially with younger children. Yet those same parents fail to follow their instincts because they may not know what to do, or are themselves uncomfortable with confrontation. In any case, the result may be dangerous to the psychological health of children.

    The study, conducted by Illinois psychologist Laurie Kramer and researcher Lisa Perozynski, identified three main responses parents have when they find their children engaged in a verbal or physical fight: step in and talk it through with the children, threaten or admonish the children, or do nothing at all. As a group, both mothers and fathers believed that helping children resolve conflicts worked best in addressing the immediate problem. Yet when they examined 88 two-parent families with one child 3 to 5 years old and a second child two to four years older, Kramer and Perozynski found that parents were three times as likely to fail to act at all.

    Allowing sibling conflict to escalate, however, is bad training for the real world, says Kramer. Where else but at home could kids get away with screaming at one another or roughhousing? "Parents guiding children during conflict is so hugely important," Kramer says, "both because it helps kids learn important skills in handling disputes and also because ignoring them can sometimes lead to abuse." In fact, a 1994 study found that physical abuse among siblings was far more common than parent-child or even spousal abuse.

    Why do parents fail to referee? While the study did not document the reasons, experts offered several possibilities. In some cases, parents may be influenced by the oversimplified counsel that "kids will be kids." Others may be worried about favoring one child over another and choose to do nothing. Child psychiatrist Leon Hoffman, who runs the Parent Child Center of the New York Psychoanalytic Society, says many parents are afraid of being too aggressive and then take a permissive, hands-off approach too far.

    That passivity can come at a price. A New York City journalist who was consistently taunted by his older brother says that when he now receives a compliment, he often tends to think the person is lying, because on some level he fears that the disparaging things his brother said about him are true. "The hitting was just an exclamation point," he says. "Much more damaging was the constant stream of put-downs. Especially if you think it has your parents' tacit approval, you think he must be right."

    Adele Faber, co-author with Elaine Mazlish of the best-selling Siblings Without Rivalry, says in some extreme cases, parents may even blame the victim. A woman Faber met at a lecture told her that when she retaliated with verbal attacks against her rough-and-tumble older brothers, "they called her bigmouth, then beat her up. The parents would sit there and watch, saying, 'They're right. You deserve it; you are a bigmouth.' Her relationship with her brothers today? Nonexistent." Nor does she enjoy a mature sense of self-worth. Low self-esteem, severe anxiety, depression and substance abuse are common symptoms of adults who suffered sibling abuse.

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