Friday, May 25, 2012

Five for Friday: 5 Ways We Weathered the Storm of Sibling Rivalry

I wrote a few weeks ago about my personal challenges during the difficult transitional period when Ashley first entered our family as a pre-adoptive foster placement, and I briefly touched on some of the sibling issues we were facing. I'd like to focus more on the sibling side of the equation in this post, highlighting a few of the things my husband and I did to deal with the intense rage and jealousy that our two daughters initially experienced in response to each other.

1) We became a therapy family 
In an earlier Five for Friday post I talked about getting myself into therapy. I also found a therapist for my older daughter to help her cope with the big emotions that were coming up for her. Ashley was already involved in therapy when she came to us, but it took me a while to realize Mackenzie could benefit as well during the transition. If I could do it all again, I'd start the therapy process for Mackenzie before Ashley even moved in.

As I did when looking for a therapist for myself, I used Psychology Today's Therapist Finder to narrow my choices based on written profiles, then I set up exploratory meetings with two therapists. I walked out of the meeting with the first therapist convinced that she was not the right match for our family, but the second one turned out to be perfect for us. She helped Mackenzie a lot; we saw her for about 10 months and then all agreed that we ready to end the sessions. We were in a completely different place by then as a family compared to where we started.

2) We adopted a divide-and-conquer strategy
My husband and I didn’t see much of each other that first winter. When the weekend rolled around, we’d each take a kid and head off to a separate activity. You might assume this was a bad thing for our marriage, but it was actually a good strategy in the long run because it brought stability to our family. The girls seemed to need time away from each other, and they each thrived on the one-on-one parental attention they got when our family spit up for the day. By ensuring that their individual cups were as full as possible, we increased their resourcefulness for dealing with each other during the week. 

3) We ignored strange looks from strangers        
As I mentioned in my earlier post, one of the biggest challenges for me involved the girls fighting in the back seat of the car. I began to wonder why no car manufacturer had invented a family vehicle with a solid barrier down the middle of the back seat. It’s difficult for a parent, especially one who is already stressed, to deal with a conflict that is happening behind her while simultaneously focusing on driving. And the children didn’t feel safe knowing I couldn’t intervene, which in turn often caused the situation to escalate. Many times we pulled over in a safe spot, got out of the car, and took our time to cool down and get reregulated before continuing on. It may have looked a little strange to passersby, but it was what we needed to do.

4) My husband gave up his office
When we Ashley first moved in with us, she and Mackenzie shared a room. Disaster! It just didn’t work. So we adapted. Mackenzie ended up moving into the room that had been my husband’s office. It took us a while, but we eventually managed to transform the space into a tween girl’s room. And my husband? Well, that part took even longer but we did finally create a new space for him ... in the basement.

5) I took some weird advice
I was familiar with what Bryan Post of the Post Institute had said about sibling rivalry. Bryan views sibling rivalry as an unconscious fight for survival and recommends that the parent go straight to that unconscious fear and address it directly, reassuring the child that you will keep them alive. 

It made sense to me on some level, but I couldn’t really imagine myself doing as he recommended. It just seemed silly. I knew Mackenzie was stressed, but surely she didn’t really believe she was going to die! But one day Mackenzie was particularly anguished and my attempts to offer empathy were clearly not hitting the mark. I was out of other ideas, so I decided to give Bryan’s method a try. “You’re not going to die,” I said. “I’m not going to let you die.” I fully expected her to look at me as if I had three heads, and say “Yes, I know that.” But she didn’t. Instead she sobbed, melting into my arms, “Yes I am. I am going to die,” and I understood for the first time that that’s really how it felt to her. It was that bad. We continued in that way, me repeating the words and her sobbing and softening. I could tell even then that it was a turning point, and indeed, we did see a significant improvement in her relationship with Ashley after this event.

As I've mentioned before, these two sisters now get along better than average and seem to genuinely enjoy each other's company ... most of the time. What a long way we've come!


  1. neversaidgoodbyeMay 25, 2012 at 6:35 PM

    I am so glad you took the necessary steps for your daughters to build a good, healthy relationship. My abrother routinely told everyone I was adopted and not his real sister. Nothing was done about this. When I expressed my hurt or anger about this to my adoptive parents- my adoptive parents pointed out that he was not lying- he was just sharing the dynamics of our family. Yes he certainly was. I cringe when I hear of people adopting when they have biological children or having biological children after adopting due to my experiences with my adoptive family. I applaud your blog for identifying these issues and seek to help countless adoptive parents to do better by their kids. Thank you.

  2. Thanks so much for this incredibly informative and practical post. My husband and I are considering adding a 7-year-old to our family within the next few months, and we're stumbling around looking for resources to prepare us and our family. We have a 15-month-old, so some of these won't apply, but the divide-and-conquer thing keeps us alive now. Do you have any recommendations or must-reads on attachment disorder? Based on her history, we're expecting to deal with that one BIG time. Thanks so much for all you share!

  3. I just hopped over from gbsmom. What an excellent post! We experienced the exact same scenario with our two girls - only they still don't get along very well. And AMEN to the comment about car manufacturers! :-) Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  4. Someone on adoption voices recommended I check out your blog(s), etc. I wish I'd come across them sooner. We have an internationally adopted daughter and are currently submitting our home study for children in foster care. I have been searching for good blogger, etc. resources on foster adoption and haven't found much. So, I was really pleased to find your blog. It's full of great information. Thank you. M @


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