Q:I have three kids, all two years apart. My two boys have become best friends and like to exclude their sister, the youngest one. It has gotten so bad that she’s often left playing alone, as they lock her out or hide from her to not include her. Is this normal for siblings or should I intervene so they include her?
Ah yes, three kids! And one is (or feels) left out. I know it well, having mothered triplets. Having three children is a difficult happiness. One feeling left out or two of them ganging up on the other is just one of the inherent problems that can arise. While I am reluctant to call it “normal,” I will say it is often part of the gig in raising more than two siblings.
First of all, it is a good idea to consider what need is being met for the two boys when they team together and gang up on their sister. I am wondering what these boys are like away from home. Are they social guys? Do they both have lots of friends? Is each a confident individual?
Possibly one boy may feel less connected within the family, may feel like he isn’t getting enough attention, may resent the attention the “baby” or the girl gets. Something feels better, even really good, when the two band together. Two partners always feel more powerful than one alone. Two partners may have found a way to relate to one another; they have bonded in alliance against their sister. Or it could simply be a sense of satisfaction they feel in being so tough together, energizing each other in an unacceptable way.
I am curious to know what happens when one of the boys isn’t around? Does the one who is there play with his sister? Is there any “mean” behavior? Do they get along just like kids do? And how is each boy in a one-on-one playdate with a peer? The answers to these questions are telling and could be clues.
You are wondering if you should intervene. The answer is yes and no. The key to this issue may be in manipulating the home environment in order to elicit a change. It’s more of an indirect intervention.
It is interesting how families with more than two children tend to group their kids. When there are two boys and two girls, for example, life might be organized by “the girls” and “the boys.” In other families it is typical to put together the big kids and the little kids, often referred to as the “bigs” and the “littles.” In families where there is a set of multiples, it is very common for the twins to be grouped together and the non-twin(s) to be separate.
In my own family with triplets (two boys and one girl) I saw this occurrence. While no one ever referred to them as “the triplets,” they were “the boys and Jessie.” The boys were grouped together by the world and by their interests. Jessie always felt left out and as if she had no one, no fault of the boys, however.
Perhaps it’s time to look at the messages you are conveying in your groupings. Do you always put the boys together? Might they share a room? Do they participate in the same sports? Do they share playdates? Do you take them out without their sister?
It might be time not only to look at the three as individuals, separate from their sibs, but also to change your groupings. How about taking one boy and the girl out, and leave one boy at home? How about having the other boy and his sister do a project or special activity together? It would be good for one boy to have a playdate without his brother participating. Maybe it’s time to dilute the coupling.
Having regular whole-family activities and rituals will also help. Have Sunday night pillow fights, separating the boys on teams. Play games together, watch shows together, go on outings all together. Research has shown that warm feelings within families carry over to warm feelings among all the siblings. Creating whole family memories fuels the good feelings forever.
I must admit, there is something that we all love about siblings who are close. It’s pretty great. However, when someone is the recipient of unkindness or sibling bullying, we have a big problem. The place where you should step in actively is in communicating your family values. I hope kindness is at the top of your list. Kindness needs to be modeled, expected, praised and sometimes rewarded. (Unkindness needs to be addressed, whether by a loss of a privilege or sharing your extreme disappointment. But this is for another column.)
In your family, I would place inclusion right next to kindness. Make sure when you witness your boys including their sister, they receive recognition. And remember, it is always better to catch your children doing the right thing, than giving attention to the negative behaviors.
BBB is a child development and behavior specialist in Pacific Palisades. She can be reached through betsybrownbraun.com.
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