Is Sibling Rivalry Another Name for Love?

Three blended families share their sibling stories, and advice on how to have more love and less fighting.

From the January/February 2002 issue.
Hear stories about siblings in blended families from parents who've been there and dealt with the rivalry.

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If your home sometimes sounds more like a battlefield than a playground, take comfort in a recent poll, in which one-third of parents reported that the relationship between their children "shifts between truce and war." Seven percent described their kids as the "worst of enemies," while twenty-five percent admitted that relationships "occasionally get mean-spirited." Only one-third of respondents reported that their children are "best of friends."

Now, add the complexities of adoption to the mix: delayed bonding, transracial or transcultural adjustments, post-institutionalization behaviors, and possibly physical, emotional, or learning disabilities. All of these issues can impact relationships for siblings in blended families. We asked three adoptive couples to speak honestly about their childrens' connections to each other, which range from distant to committed, from angry to embracing. (Some names were changed to protect children's identities.) We'd love to hear how they compare to the action around your dinner table.

Room for One More

Even before Dianne and Al married, they knew they wanted to adopt. "It was something that was always important to us," says Dianne. "Why make kids when there are kids that need a home?" Despite their plan, the couple's first two children were biological. Matt came first, followed by Ben two years later. When the boys were four and two, Rachael arrived from Korea at six months old. Next the family added Naomi, bi-racial and 11 months old at adoption. One year later, the agency called with news of Naomi's biological half-sister, Sarah. Dianne and Al couldn't say no. Five kids, each spaced two years apart, was enough for Dianne.

Then, one day, her husband showed her pictures of children in Chinese orphanages. That's how baby An joined the family. Initially, oldest daughter Rachael was not pleased about An's adoption. She was worried the adoption would interfere with her college plans. But she clearly had a change of heart. Because they are both Asian, An's adoption has meant a great deal to Rachael. "I see Rachael identifying with An in her questions, like, 'Did I do that when I was young?'" says Dianne.

Today the family's rivalries and fidelities are a real mix. "Our two oldest kids are friends, but are nothing like each other," remarks Dianne. "Ben is reckless and a daredevil, and Matt is careful and introspective. Ben doesn't really 'connect' with the other kids much-except with his baby sister, An, whom he adores. Matt, our elder son, is quite close with our eldest daughter, Rachael. They share musical tastes and some friends. Both are introverted. They often have long conversations." Peace had been the norm prior to the arrival of Naomi and Sarah. "They fight just like sisters!" laughs Dianne. "The other kids never did. I used to think I was such a good parent. Now I know it's just luck when temperaments blend."

Why Couldn't I Be An Only Child?

When the time came for Terri and Richard to start their family, they adopted Steven, from Korea in 1988. Two years later, Korean daughter, Melissa, was placed in their arms. In both cases, the adoption process was relatively easy, but parenting their second little darling was not. The couple knew they wanted more children, but not another difficult infant. They decided to wait until their children were older before they added to their family again.

When Steven was 12, the couple added Nicholas and Charlotte, biological siblings ages four and six who had been in foster care. Any addition to a family requires an adjustment. But when the new family member comes equipped with a well-formed personality and developed preferences, along with social and emotional issues, assimilation into the family requires a plan-and patience. "Their adoption really turned things upside down for a while," says Terri. "The youngest two had struggled together to survive in their first few years of life and had a very close bond." Terri and Richard used various team-building activities, from playing board games to working in the garden, to bring the family together.

After two years, the youngest three now function as a sibling unit. But the couple's older son hasn't yet developed a sibling connection. Steven's reluctance was apparent from the time he learned about the adoptions, Terri explains. "He could never figure out why we didn't stop with him. I think he would love to have been an only child." To some degree, Steven's hesitation to bond with the youngest two has affected his relationship with his older sister. The two had been close when they were younger, but now he feels she is "a traitor" for having developed a relationship with the pair. Terri believes that all four children would be closer if she hadn't waited as long for the second set of adoptions. "Teenagers go into a separating time. I think if we had added kids when the oldest was 10, it would have worked out better than when he was 12."

Timing May Be Everything

When Rebecca and Bruce adopted their son, Jamie, as a toddler from Russia, their biological daughters, Sarah and Rachel, were three and five years old. At first, the girls weren't happy. "Part of it was that he was a boy, part of it was that he was a toddler," says Rebecca, "mobile and very interested in their stuff and their space. The girls connected those issues with his adoption." Rebecca remembers her five-year-old daughter asking, "Now, why did we get him?" Both girls wanted to know, "When can he go back?"

In time, however, everyone adjusted. "At one point," says their mother, "my three-year-old daughter proudly told me, 'You know, I really don't think about sending him back anymore, Mom.'" Within a year of adopting Jamie, Rebecca traveled to China to adopt baby Hannah. "Hannah was a piece of cake," says Rebecca. "She was tiny, immobile, non-verbal, helpless, and the other kids adored her. Four kids were immediately easier than three had been." Rebecca and Bruce's family was complete-or so they thought.

Then, last summer Rebecca traveled to China to work on an orphanage project. One little girl, who had a congenital ear defect, stole Rebecca's heart on the last day. She returned home determined to get this little girl to the U.S. for treatment. After much parental soul searching, Winnie officially joined the family. Rebecca doubts that adoption plays a part in her children's sibling rivalry, "The bickering seem to be more influenced by birth order, sex, and age. My oldest, at 10, has little tolerance for any of her siblings. She considers herself an adult. My second daughter is a junior mom and is wonderful with the three younger ones. All four of the girls struggle with their brother from time to time. On the other hand, he adores them."

Rebecca has seen vast differences in the bonding experience with each of her children. "We've adopted children at five months, 17 months, and five years of age," she says. "Despite what we'd like to think, it's not the same. Adopting an infant wasn't much different from giving birth, in terms of bonding. Within days, each member of our family had fallen in love with this tiny, helpless baby." But adopting a toddler-a fast-moving, curious, strong-willed toddler-is different, as is adopting an even older child.

Family Chemistry

When a child joins a family, he does not come as an empty slate. He is an individual with genetic predispositions and personal experiences that will bear on the family chemistry, particularly when the child is adopted after infancy. Rivalries and fidelities will naturally develop based on children's individual temperaments and interests. As parents, our fondest hope is that our children grow up to be happy, decent people, who can relate to those closest to them. As in any family, the siblings who fought furiously as children may grow up to be remarkably good friends.

Rules of Engagement

Try following suggestions to help create an environment more conducive to family harmony.

  • Prepare your children for the new addition. Talk about what a new family member will mean in practical terms. Kids adjust better when they have clear expectations.
  • Give each child "protected turf." Everyone needs a special place to call his own. If this means bedrooms need to change, make the move before the new child arrives.
  • Establish family rules and stick to them. Then use short-hand reminders, rather than lectures. "We use our words, not our fists."
  • Don't get involved in your children's every squabble. But do get involved if a child's safety is in jeopardy.
  • Instill tools for fighting fair. No name calling. Speak directly to the other person, exchange feelings instead of accusations.
  • Help kids master the art of negotiation. If you're invited to settle an argument, say "I think that's a problem you can solve on your own."
  • Build empathy by talking about feelings and conflict resolution. Children's stories, bible verses, TV shows, and life experiences provide plenty of fodder.
  • Don't compare your children to one another. Everyone has unique talents and gifts. Play those up, instead.
  • Maintain individual connections with each child. This could be through regular "dates" or one-on-one time after younger siblings have gone to bed.
  • You can't mandate "love." But you can-and should-demand respectful behavior.

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