Sibling rivalry is a conflict between brothers and sisters that go beyond simple disagreements between two or more parties because of individual differences and different opinions on a subject. Starting from as early as the birth of the second child, sibling rivalry usually involves jealousy and competition between siblings which can show up as fighting on a frequent or routine basis. It is usually frustrating and stressful for parents who do not understand human psychology or the basis behind relationship conflicts. They are often at a loss as to how to respond to the ongoing conflict between their children.
Since sibling rivalry often shows up from early childhood, the following forms of sibling rivalry behaviour are often displayed in response to each other:
challenging a belief,
simply looking at each other (with the intent of intimidation)
breaking something that belongs to the other one,
throwing something at the other one,
hiding something that is important to the other person.
Reasons for sibling rivalry:
Children may feel their relationship with their parents is threatened by the arrival of a new baby. They were the centre’ of their parents’ attention until the new baby arrived. Now the new arrival is seen as a competitor for the parent’s attention.
Children feel they are getting unequal amounts of a parent’s attention, discipline, and responsiveness. Their sense of value is measured based on their evaluation of their parent’s attention to them. So they compete to be favoured.
Children who struggle to differentiate and individuate as unique individuals do not yet recognize their personal power except through conflict and competition with each other. It shows up as a power struggle.
Children who are hungry, bored or tired are more likely to become frustrated and start fights.
Children may not know positive ways to get attention for a sibling or how to start playful activities, so they pick fights instead.
Children’s developmental stages affect how mature they are and how well they can share a parent’s attention and get along with one another. The less mature sibling may be more likely to want their parents’ attention as an all-or-nothing need focused on them and not their siblings. This immaturity is expressed as an either-or view instead of being able to adopt the view of both-and (ie., both being important). As such, their level of emotional maturity is showing in their attempts to resolve their attempts to negotiate with each other to resolve their conflict.
Each child feels the need to compete with each other to define who they are as an individual. As they discover who they are, they may uncover their own talents, activities, and interests. Sibling rivalry shows up as their struggle to separate, differentiate or individuate from their siblings while feeling inferior or superior along the way in contrast to their sibling.
Stress in children’s lives can shorten their fuses, and decrease their ability to tolerate frustration, leading to more conflict.
Stress in the parents’ lives can decrease the amount of time and attention parents can give the children and increase sibling rivalry.
Family dynamics play a role. For example, one child may remind a parent of a relative who was particularly difficult, and this resentment may subconsciously be projected on their child to influence how the parent treats that child so that the child is regarded as, eg. the ‘black sheep’ or ‘the problem child’ vs. the idealized. The problem-child view can be accepted by the other siblings from the parents and then be regarded accordingly. Similarly, if a parent simply has a favourite child among their children, maybe because the child is regarded as more socially, academically or physically attractive among the children, this can foster jealousy, resentment and competition between the children.
How parents treat their kids and react to conflict can make a big difference in how well siblings get along. Children often fight more in families where parents think aggression and fighting between siblings are normal and an acceptable way to resolve conflicts.
Not having time to share regular, enjoyable family time together (like family meals) can increase the chances of children engaging in conflict. The absence of an emotional bond between the children can increase the likelihood of conflict.
Other factors that influence sibling rivalry:
Birth order: for example, it is common that the oldest and youngest child often receive the most attention while the middle children often feel overlooked (eg. the oldest being celebrated by the parents or extended family as the first-born; the youngest being celebrated as the ‘baby’ of the family).
Spacing between the children: when spaced further apart, there is usually less competition; when spaced more closely, there tends to be more.
Temperamental differences: temperamentally easy babies tend to be liked more while more difficult ones are experienced as more annoying.
If parents choose as a favourite or respond differently to their children, this can also spur more jealousy and competition or intensify competition between them.
Gender: in some families, a child of one sex is preferred over the other.
Physical influences: children who share a room may argue more due to being in constant close proximity with each other; a child who received more attention due to an illness or physical disability may leave siblings feeling neglected or ignored.
Parenting style or approach: Children with very permissive and overly harsh parents tend to fight more –permissive parents may not operate with adequate rules so children feel they have to settle their conflicts by themselves without guidance; overly harsh parents who are strict or harsh tend to model aggression to their children to get their needs met. The best outcomes show up with parents who have acquired what has been described as the authoritative approach.
Age of the children: as children mature and reach later developmental stages, sibling rivalry tends to decrease.
Transitional times: sibling rivalry tends to intensify when there are changes in the family, eg. the birth of a new baby, when a baby becomes mobile, when a sibling goes off to school, when a sibling leaves the family for college or marriage, if there is a divorce or a remarriage.
How to respond as parents?
With this knowledge already outlined, parents can lookout for ways to parent more intentionally. Firstly, they have to desire for their children to get along or be positive or loving with each other in the family. Interventions can then be planned for. They can be preventative or when conflicts occur, facilitate to address the identified need or help resolve the conflict between the children. For example, understanding how the birth order could raise the possibility of jealousy between siblings, or the prospect of one child being favoured over another, the importance for each child to be valued and appreciated as unique is an important practice. Also, parents need to watch how they manage their own conflicts as their children view them as role models for life learning. At the same time, they can remain optimistic when they realize that some sibling rivalry is inevitable and that as children mature and learn ways to handle conflicts, the rivalry will usually subside. The younger they are, the more parents are called on to be a referee. Probably the most help needed to be directive with the children is 4 years or younger. Here are some useful strategies to help children manage their conflicts:
Communicate the basic message that includes:
Acknowledgement that they both want their way by arguing with each other rather than to cooperate.
Hitting each other, calling each other names or bullying is not going to work.
They both have needs in the situation and they have to find out how they can both be acknowledged and met but without fighting.
Find out how to do this by themselves of you will decide on their behalf in a way they may not like.
Establish rules for managing the conflict.
Having rules in place is a way of communicating your family values. So the parent needs to decide what behaviours are important and what they wish to enforce. This is an effective preventive strategy.
Handling conflicts and anger “No hitting, use words to say what you are upset about.”
Family Values/morals “We treat each other with respect.”
Parents’ role when there is conflict “If I get involved, I will determine the outcome.”
Hurt or property is damaged “Whoever caused the hurt or damage must make amends.”
Personal possessions and boundaries “We don’t take someone else’s things without asking first.”
Complaining “No complaining to get someone in trouble; you can “tell” to get someone out of trouble.” For example, a child telling his mother that his sibling just entered his room without permission.
Cooperation “Work it out between you two or if I get involved, neither of you might like what I decide.”
Conflict Resolution Sibling rivalry highlights the need for children to be taught the skill of conflict resolution. When they are young, the parent will have to walk them through the whole process after each conflict. In time, they will be able to resolve their conflicts with their siblings and others on their own. In summary, this process involves each child learning to express his point of view and listening to the other child’s point of view, generating a number of possible solutions that work for each of them, choosing one solution, and trying it. It encourages listening for and the expression of feelings to understand each other to discern what they both need. In this practice, it fosters the development of the sense of mutuality, and promotes the practice of collaboration and cooperation. This skill helps your children to navigate current and future relationships with their peers. It is useful throughout their life. It can equip them to be emotionally and relationally competent and capable as they see that they can come up with solutions to problems in relationships without fighting. But in order to engage in a problem exploration process, the children must be calm enough to dialogue. Time out may be called until both are calm enough to proceed. The parent also has to model for their children when it comes to handling conflict. The lesson is obviously more powerful when the parents practise this themselves. Use “fair fight” rules yourself.
Use cool off times to calm down first; then re-enter the situation.
Give second chances and opportunities to make amends.
Listening well: seek first to understand, then to be understood. In order to seek to understand, we must first learn to listen (Stephen Covey’s 5th habit of highly effective people).
Attitudes and additional strategies that help to encourage health sibling relationships:
Expect many episodes of sibling rivalry.
Treat your children as the unique individuals they are.
Do not show favouritism.
Stay calm and objective.
Recognizing the need is important in discussing ‘fairness.’
Don’t look for someone to blame or punish. Take personal responsibility to communicate well with each other.
Don’t get in long discussions about what happened (it can act as a reward for their arguments)
Establish basic relational rules: encourage communication, listening and understanding of feelings with empathy, taking turns.
Reinforce and remind them of a list of basic rules: “You can express your feelings to communicate clearly without having to be hurtful;” ”Use your words and not your fists;” “Speak to them in the way you would like to be spoken to.”
Encourage the children to solve their problems: be creative to find out “What would work for you both?”
Be aware of developmental stages: very young children find it hard to share as they need to have a sense of possession before they can share.
Don’t referee a fight if you don’t know what happened.
Do not allow your children to pit one parent against the other. Discuss privately and directly between parents if they disagree with a parenting decision made by the other.
Do not bemoan to the children that they “fight all the time” (or they will live up to this pronouncement).
Reward them verbally for their efforts at collaboration to promote a loving or positive connection between themselves. Valuing them verbally models for them to value each other. This also promotes both their self-esteem.
These attitudes are commonly practised by parents who embrace an authoritative approach to parenting. But when the conflicts get out of control and do not stop, get professional help. The relational skills children learn in childhood is what they practice with as adults. The ability to be effective in relationships is crucial to personal success later when children grow up to marry, have families of their own or at work.
Play is a critical part of a child’s development from birth. It boosts healthy brain development that is conducive for physical, cognitive, and emotional growth. It encourages imagination and creativity, and improves social skills and confidence. It is therefore not surprising that psychologists realised its power and tapped into it as an instrument of healing.
Challenges are a part of life. But in childhood, they can be harsher as children haven’t developed the capability to understand or deal with what they are going through. In their tender minds, loss or pain could be something as small (to an adult) as a broken favourite toy and range up to a major loss in the forms of death, separation from a loved one, hospitalization, abuse or other personal/family crises. While some children might manage to some extent by voicing their displeasure or through negative behaviours, others might just suppress their emotions. If the setbacks are beyond the coping skills of the child, the trauma can manifest as psychological or emotional disorders.
Parents often ask how they can know if their child needs counselling. Some signs could be that the child is being more angry, nervous, defiant, sad, or withdrawn than usual, or than is reasonable. The child could also be showing changes in eating and sleeping patterns, a decrease in school grades or reduced interest in previously favoured activities. When in doubt, it is better to err on the side of caution and seek help.
Play therapy is one of the prominent forms of therapy for children and is practised by a variety of mental health professionals, like counsellors, psychotherapists, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers. It is an intervention which allows children who are experiencing emotional or behavioural issues to open up their emotions in the safe space of the ‘playroom’. They are given toys to play with, and the children play as they wish, without feeling interrogated or threatened. For the children themselves, play (therapy) is familiar and fun and they are thus able to work out their undesirable experiences and resolve their emotional and behavioural difficulties. What materials the child chooses to play with and how they play all have meaning. The therapist watches their play to get an insight into their emotional or mental health problems.
Depending on the issues faced by the child and their own training, therapists conduct non-directed or directed play therapy and provide play materials accordingly. Non directed play therapy is free-play and very similar to the free association of adult psychodynamic therapy. While in the latter adult clients are allowed to talk and ventilate to gain insight and resolve their problems, free play with limited conditions and guidelines, allows the child to express their feelings just through their play. Their verbal expression might or might not be as important.
Directed play therapy includes more structure and guidance by the therapist and several techniques are used to purposefully engage the child. These could be engaging in play with the child themselves or suggesting new topics, themes for play. Parents might or might not be included in the sessions. Materials may include art and craft materials, sand and water, clay, dolls, toys, blocks, a family of dolls, miniature figures, animals, musical instruments, puppets and books. While traditionally Play therapy is considered to be beneficial for children ages 3 to 12, it has been modified and customised by researchers and therapists to help adolescents and adults also, and some mental health practitioners have started including video games as therapeutic tools. Apart from being used at counselling centres, play therapy is also being used at critical-incident settings, such as hospitals and domestic violence shelters to help children deal with deep issues.
In regular lives, parents can encourage their kids to play indoors and outdoors and especially in nature. Lawrence J. Cohen has created an approach called ‘Playful Parenting’, in which parents are encouraged to connect playfully with their children through silliness, laughter, and roughhousing to enhance relationships and general well being.
Challenges are a part of life. While the purpose of therapy is to solve problems, playing for the sake of fun can prevent them. This can be applied not only for children but for the inner child in every individual to make life happier and more meaningful. As the proverb goes – All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
Vasantham (Mediacorp’s Tamil & Hindi TV Channel) studios reached out to Promises Healthcare’s Senior Clinical Psychologist, S C Anbarasu, in the name of bringing greater mental health awareness to the Indian community in Singapore.
In En Ullae S2 episode 9, we are introduced to an exuberant boy, who upon closer inspection is revealed to suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Is he beset by developmental issues, or is there a more benign explanation? Senior Clinical Psychologist S.C. Anbarasu opens the episode with a parsimonious explanation of ADHD – simply, people with ADHD are distinguished by a lack of ability to pay attention, and appear to have vast amounts of energy, hence, ‘hyperactivity’.
In a dramatisation, the boy’s mother wears an expression of bemused exasperation – the problems began even before his birth. Prolonged labour (which occurs after 18 – 24 hours), and a possible Caesarean section heralded the coming of a “problem child”. Anusha Venkat then recalls how, at the age of 2 or 3, she came to the realisation that her son’s inability to focus was far more prevalent than what she observed in other children. Even a couple of seconds of concentration seemed to be a hard ask. He couldn’t remain placated long enough to complete any task. At the childcare, teachers baulked at how he pinged from corner to corner of the room.
Anusha reveals how a serendipitous discovery that Carnatic music could calm him down enough to remain in one spot for more than 10 minutes. A breakthrough! Anbarasu explains that while a child suffering from ADHD can disrupt classroom proceedings, it is pointless to use force to discipline them. ADHD can make someone feel like they are “constrained within a container” if they are impelled to do a task in which they have no interest. Instead, they expend their energy reserves by indulging in some other activity – like running around and being a little menace. For parents who are unaware of ADHD as a mental health condition, seeing their child act out can be scary. In fact, Seelan (the boy protagonist) went undiagnosed at age 3 – doctors merely offered that most children are, well, rambunctious tots at that age. It takes a diligent parent to make a reasoned conclusion that their child may suffer from ADHD. Seelan was given assorted tasks to complete, with his attention span closely watched, even who he liked or disliked in class was logged.
However, Anbarasu recommends that care must be taken to conduct a diagnosis per the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-5). First, the test must be conducted on children below the age of 12. While school-going children come with a larger raft of observable behaviours due to differences in environment (home, school, etc), Anbarasu admits that is is not easy to chalk up roughhousing or rowdiness to ADHD when those are developmentally appropriate behaviours for a child. Apparently, six or seven are ages when an accurate diagnosis is reached easiest.
Aside from Carnatic music, Seelan’s attention span was helped by repetitive menial tasks like peeling potatoes, chopping ladies’ fingers and carrots. Anbarasu acknowledges that dealing with ADHD in children is a time-consuming task because they aren’t able to complete tasks as quickly as their peers. He calls on parents to pick up the slack – strategising holistic ways to help their child, both at home and in school. It’s a collaborative effort between teachers and parents to then carry out an agreed-upon strategy.
All is not doom and gloom, however. Seelan is observed to play with Lego building blocks for hours on end, despite not performing in the classroom. Anbarasu calls this ‘hyper-focus’. It is a state of mind wherein the mind eliminates noise that potentially distracts them from the task at hand, a sort of “perk” if you will. We are cautioned that encroaching upon this state of hyper-focus can exacerbate emotional issues and precipitate anger. People with ADHD are victim to ‘emotional dysregulation’, which may manifest from frustration in perceived inability to complete tasks satisfactorily. Seelan was unable to appreciate the benefits of delayed gratification, getting restless and upset if things didn’t go his way. Anbarasu explains that this results from emotional dysregulation as well.
At some point, Seelan faces potential expulsion from his class due to the complaints of other children’s parents. Especially in Singapore, where grades are paramount, a poor academic performance which results from an inability to work with a child’s ADHD can be distressing to parents. The teeth-gnashing frustration can make parents feel helpless, and Anbarasu suggests that these situations call for a consultation with a professional therapist who will elucidate the behavioural issues at hand. This gives parents more information to plan future steps. Parents of children with ADHD also attract stinging criticism from other parents. They might feel inadequate in their roles as nurturers and mentors. Anusha has accepted this to be a part of life, chortling as she muses that “you can’t change people”. Whatever the case, it isn’t fair to fault parents for a child’s ADHD. Or the child. Anbarasu clarifies that ADHD is a neuro-developmental disorder – in other words, that’s just how the cookie crumbles. Blame should not be apportioned. Anusha recalls how Seelan used to behave like an attention hog – in its absence, tantrums would be the order of the day. According to Anusha, dealing with instances of emotional dysregulation like this is challenging, especially if you have to deal with the needs of your child while observing social propriety.
Every child’s circumstances are different, so Anbarasu recommends that care be taken to evaluate if danger is imminent. Shouting for a little is perfectly OK. Deal with them after they have thrown their fits because anger is not conducive to receptiveness to advice. Anbarasu is careful to eschew the notion of a “cure” for ADHD. Rather, he says that it is “treatable”. Whether with medication or psychotherapy, or a combination of the two.
Children with ‘combined-type’ ADHD are challenged in a triune of areas – attention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. For these cases, neuropharmacological support is required, to aid concentration and retention of information in class. If the ADHD is not as pronounced, therapy alone could manage the condition. For parents who are especially harrowed by their child’s condition, they should know that there is ample evidence in favour of managing ADHD through the concurrent administration of medication and therapy. On top of psychiatric interventions, there are support groups inside and outside the classroom for parents who are overly stressed.
The episode closes with the narrator speaking over clips of Seelan looking positively cherubic. The viewer is called on to spare the snide remarks, replacing them with positivity, understanding, and “plenty of support”.
Youths these days have a lot on their plate. Teenagers have to cope with the highly competitive education system, and the fresh graduates are worried about employment opportunities or career advancement. Coupled with the need to maintain good relationships with their friends and family, these individuals may be experiencing high levels of stress. Some people do thrive well under stress, but what happens when stress levels exceed the healthy range? For those who are unable to cope, chances are their mental wellbeing would take a toll.
With young people unable to attend school in person regularly or go into the workplace during the circuit breaker, they might have felt increasingly isolated due to the lack of face-to-face social interaction over this extended period of time. Furthermore, having to fight for their own space while at home with their family members may have caused some conflict and frustration for some. Undoubtedly, cabin fever may have also kicked in for some of them. Although circuit breaker measures have recently been eased, youths may not be able to adjust back to the norms as easily as one might expect. Reports have shown thatit is expected that more youths will be prone to developing mental health issues such as depression due to the various implemented COVID 19 pandemic coping measures.
Depression is one of the world’s leading mental health disorders, and youths have become increasingly prone to it. Studies have shown that depression affects up to 18% of Singaporean youths. People with depression may turn to self-harm or experience thoughts of suicide. These are often methods they adopt in order to cope with their difficult emotions. According to the suicide prevention agency Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), suicide remains the leading cause of death among youths aged 10 to 29 in Singapore, and as of 2018, 94 of them had succumbed to suicide. In order to curb the rise of depression cases among youths, it is important that we are able to identify the early stages of depression. Doing so will allow them to seek treatment earlier and to help them get back onto their feet. Depression, if left untreated, will severely impact people’s lives in a negative light, causing personal, educational and familial difficulties.
Here are some of the most common symptoms of depression that you should look out for (not exhaustive):
Extreme sadness and low mood
Lack of interest in activities once enjoyed
Lack of self-worth
Experiences sleep disturbances and loss of appetite
But how can we first better support troubled youths? When it comes to dealing with depression, individuals with mild depressive conditions could adopt self-help strategies such as trying to maintain a balanced diet, to pick up on relaxation techniques, embark on daily gratitude journaling exercises (e.g. 3 things I can be thankful for today) and get some exercise in, even if it’s just a stroll around the estate or exercises from ATHLEAN-X™ or Athlean-XX for Women. Try encouraging them to live a healthy lifestyle and maybe create a ‘Daily Wellness Plan’ – a list of little and big things they can accomplish on a daily basis to comfort and keep their moods up. However, it is key to take note that even though their depression may be perceived to be mild from a third person’s point of view, we should never make assumptions as to what they truly feel on the inside. We should never, under any circumstance, tell them to “snap out of it”. It is very important for us to be patient and listen to what they have to say if they do approach and confide in you. Stay empathetic and show your concern for the individual. Acknowledge and respect their feelings and worries. Listen actively by using active listening skills. Encourage them to join mental health support groups like those conducted by PSALTCare – journeying with others that are going through similar struggles can encourage social healing.
On the other hand, for those coping with moderate to severe conditions, we might need to encourage them to seek a multidisciplinary approach to recovery like psychiatric help and look to taking medications, with supporting psychotherapy or counselling sessions and support groups. They might also be afraid of the stigma attached to seeing a Psychiatrist or what would transpire in that session. Try to assure them that there is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it is a lot more common in Singapore now, and a trip to the Psychiatrist is as straightforward as seeing your family doctor. Alternatively, these youths can book appointments for psychotherapy first. With appropriate treatment and support, it is entirely possible for them to move on and lead a more productive and happier life. Here’s a questionnaire that is widely used by Psychiatrists to help determine depression to help you with next steps decisions: www.mdcalc.com/phq-9-patient-health-questionnaire-9
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many usual activities to be disrupted – apart from most adults having to work from home, the majority of students are also left with no choice but to do home-based learning (HBL). This leaves them cooped up at home with less face-to-face social interaction with their peers and teachers, and most importantly, this may have heightened their stress levels with regards to their academic performances. Considering that some students will most likely have to bear with HBL for quite some time, they will need to ensure that they are keeping themselves mentally healthy. In any case, having to deal with burnout is certainly undesirable, and learning how to handle their stress is crucial.
Youths dealing with HBL often have many things to stress over – from struggling with technical issues to the lack of discipline over one’s assignments and time management. They may tend to procrastinate more, which is unsurprising considering that they may be studying from the comforts of their bed. For the more studious ones, HBL may pose a challenge since it may be difficult for them to receive immediate feedback and guidance from their teachers. With such factors contributing to their stress levels, these youths may be burnt out even before HBL ends. If you are one of these troubled students struggling with HBL and study stress, here are some tips to help you get through the difficult times and to help you cope better.
Firstly, consider if you are allocating time for exercise in your weekly routine. Are you getting the exercise you need after your online classes? It is a well-known fact that exercising and staying fit can do wonders for your mental acuity, and can help lift your spirits through the release of endorphins, which act as “feel-good hormones”. Setting aside time to keep active will certainly benefit you in more ways than one – both physically and mentally. In addition to exercise, it is an added bonus if you pay more attention to your diet. Eating more brain foods will help you concentrate and absorb information better, hence translating into greater productivity as well as improved quality of work.
Now that there isn’t a need to attend school physically (at least for some students), there is a high chance that you no longer pack and organise your study materials. Moreover, your study space is most likely cluttered with notes, stationery and various other personal belongings. Take this chance to tidy up your workspace whenever you can – be it once you are done for the day or before you start. Excessive clutter can cause unnecessary stress as well as the loss of productivity, especially if you have to spend additional time looking for your relevant study materials or other lost items. Needless to say, over time, this will have a negative impact on your grades. In order to eliminate such potential causes of stress, try to make a conscious effort to tidy your study area often. Having a minimalistic workspace with only the essential items will definitely reduce distractions and allow you to concentrate better. For those who share a space with other family members, cutting down on excessive clutter will also help to keep familial relationships positive, for they will no longer have to bear with an unorganised environment, possibly resulting in less frustration and conflict. Having said this, start tidying up and you will come to realise that it is worth the effort.
Are you someone who lacks self-discipline? Most students find themselves facing this problem, especially with many more sources of distraction while at home. Some may tend to procrastinate and end up not having sufficient time to complete their tasks. Their poor time management thus leads to heightened stress levels, particularly when deadlines are nearing. The best tip we can offer is to start off with a list of all the tasks you need to complete. Create your own calendar or a to-do list, and work backwards from all your deadlines. Allocate enough buffer time to ensure that you can complete your assignments before the due date. With this, you can prioritise your assignments with more ease, as well as to ensure that you do not leave out any important tasks. You may think that you can remember all of them, but as stress levels increase with poor time management, something is sure to slip your mind.
In Singapore, the education system is very competitive, as most people would know. Many students rely heavily on tuition to give them a head start, or to help them catch up with any content that they were unable to grasp. However, with the pandemic, tuition centres are shut down to minimise the spread of the virus, leaving the students on their own to cope with their studies. As such, these students could be increasingly stressed out, for fear of falling behind on their school work. If you can relate to these individuals, try forming an online support group with your fellow classmates. Conduct group study sessions and help each other out regarding areas for improvement. Brainstorming ideas while teaching others can help you to revise your concepts as well as to gain more insight into particular topics. In a sense, it is killing two birds with one stone.
Written by: Dr Mark Toh, Consultant Clinical Psychologist
It is a reality that we can choose our friends. If at times we find them annoying, we can always choose to make adjustments or even terminate the friendship if needed. But unfortunately, we cannot choose our family members. As such, it can be a challenging and sometimes very difficult situation when family members are emotionally unhealthy and they have not sought help to address their own difficulties.
Instead, by having to live with them as members of the same family, they become a regular source of mental distress. This can pose a particular burden for minors, or those still dependent on the difficult member as the financial source of living, or during the current coronavirus lock-down imposed by the government when family members are confined together. In some cases, especially when violence and harm is a possibility, these unhealthy members can become damaging or dangerous and more drastic action may need to be taken to promote safety.
For the child, this may be confusing if the source of difficulty from parents are due to attempts to parent or from inappropriate control. Or they may have siblings who like being bossy to their siblings. Here are some signs to consider in trying to differentiate healthy from unhealthy behaviours from difficult family members.
They are always blaming you while not accepting their own responsibilities.
Individuals who engage in unhealthy relational behaviours often have difficulty taking ownership for contributing to the problems that emerge between each other during disagreements or conflict. Their need to blame others is usually a defensive response against accepting their own guilt or responsibility for their fault or wrong in the situation.
They are always critical towards you.
Unhealthy family members also often present themselves as critical. This goes beyond a simple discussion to point out about errors if or when you or someone else has made them. But it appears more as a pattern or their habit in regarding you as a target of contempt. Words that undermine your character are often expressed. It is also often expressed regardless of the many accomplishments you may have achieved. It is often an expression of projection that reflects deep resentment or the unfulfilled wishes of the parent on a family member. Sometimes it is a resentment shared between both parents and projected on a child who they have identified as the “scapegoat”. The scapegoat in unhealthy families are usually children who are targeted for blame because the parents need to fault the child to avoid taking ownership of a problem.
They are dismissive of your feelings.
A healthier family is more prone to being encouraging or supportive especially in difficult times. But the unhealthy family member is often unconcerned of your feelings or even your opinion. The extent of their dismissal of you may show up as disagreement with you even if you are right. In severe cases, if you attempted to approach them to resolve a disagreement, they may even resort to convincing you as the problem. In this focus, they could convince you to see that you are the problem rather than to problem-solve in search of a solution that has mutual benefits.
They often make threats.
Physical altercations are not the only signs when the relationship or behaviour is unhealthy. Making threats especially when repeated is often employed as a means of control. This is going beyond anger which is a common feeling within long-term relationships. Anger is a sign when someone feels offended, frustrated or hurt. But the use of threats goes beyond anger to become an instrument of intimidation or domination, and a misuse of power. It is a common behaviour of abusive individuals.
They are controlling.
There is a difference between control from healthy parenting and unhealthy parenting. Healthy parenting is focused on what is in the child’s best interests. When discipline is exercised, it is done to facilitate learning for the child. In unhealthy parenting, control is displayed more because it is primarily attentive to the parents’ wishes and not in the best interests of the child. This is often expressed when the parent becomes forceful and induces fear on the child so that the parent can feel powerful or have his or her way. This control can also be applied between couples or siblings. The family member is expected to take the role of submission in their engagement for the controlling person to be pacified.
Additional signs for concern in this area is suggested by (a) prohibition of personal decision-making that is good for the family member, (b) issues of appropriate concern are denied from being raised for discussion, (c) material resources such as money or food are used to manipulate the family member towards submission, (d) there is direct restrictions into personal choices pertaining to clothes, appearances, spending, friendships, or even use of time, and (e) there is an opposition towards the family member becoming independent, to be separated from the unhealthy individual, or for the family member to be individuated (mature to become their own person) over time. Between couples, a controlling spouse is often violating the boundaries of his or her spouse. It is as if the controlled spouse is not allowed to be free to exercise his or her own choices.
They confuse punishment with discipline.
Discipline is the means to teach someone to abide by a code of conduct, or correction for a child to learn right from wrong. But for the unhealthy individual, punishment or discipline occurs when there is no lesson to be learned. It shows up usually because the person is unhappy for some reason. Their need to lash out is their attempt to vent out their anger or rage even if it becomes hurtful to others, and they feel justified conducting themselves this way. At other times, this punishment is expressed through passive aggressive behaviours when “silent treatment” is employed instead of yelling or shouting. Or the punishing behaviour is excessive and disproportionate to the action or event.
Unhealthy parents take sibling rivalries or ‘misbehaviour’ to the extreme.
This usually occurs when the unhealthy parent is resentful of all his or her children. They may feel that having children (or marriage) have become a personal cost to them because of the responsibilities required for the care of the children. They feel prevented or deprived of their freedom and so the children or family member are to blame. Or this could show up with a parent showing favourites to one child over the others. In the course of sibling rivalry, the unhealthy parents is revealed by (a) blaming one child more severely over the other and consistently, (b) humiliating the scapegoated child, or (c) the unhealthy parent experience the sibling rivalry or conflict as a personal or vindictive act against the parent.
Strategies for Coping with Unhealthy Parents or domineering spouses and/or siblings
It may be a sad reality that parents can consider themselves parents simply because the infant is born following his or her physical birth. But beyond the biology, the emotional maturity, readiness or mental health can often be found lacking in parents to create the healthy conditions for the infant to develop or thrive. Controlling family members who are narcissistic in nature are also more interested in their control than the well-being of others. When family members regularly display the above behaviours, there is a need for concern. Given the potential for mental distress, developmental disruption and suffering, the following strategies may be essential to assist in coping.
Know that you are your own person.
Although you may share some traits or the same family name with your parents, remember that you are not 100% of the same people who raised you. If you recognise that your parents are emotionally unhealthy, understand that you do not need to follow their same values or behavioural patterns. When you realise that you have been hurt by them repeatedly and their use of authority serves their own interests over your needs to develop in a healthy way, be ready to break away from their self-serving values to work towards a healthy development for yourself. Explore to find healthy models of functioning among others to seek their influence over your lives rather than what is practiced at home.
Create space for your own emotions to nurture your own sense of self.
The unhealthy parent, spouse or sibling often do not respect your personal boundaries. They may deny your personal space or your feelings because they are preoccupied with their own. They may not discuss matters out or they may attempt to deny an essential part of who you are. While they deny how you may feel in their relationship with you, this does not mean you cannot acknowledge or express your own feelings by blogging or journalling.
Find supportive relationships elsewhere.
When your family members have made themselves unapproachable, you can turn to others for support instead. Friends, teachers, counsellors, or colleagues are often available to relate to who engage with a healthier appreciation for you. You do not need to go through difficulties alone. So find a support system from those who appreciate you for who you are and who value you in the person you can become.
Understand that your parent, spouse or siblings may have narcissistic tendencies or a self-serving biases so set your expectations low in conversations with them.
Unhealthy parents, spouses or siblings highlight the need to understand mental illness. Having to engage family members who have already discounted you, or hold you in contempt is often more reflective of them than of you. For this reason, understanding if they have a narcissistic or anti-social personality or tendencies is useful to recognise their biases. You may wish to have deep, meaningful or respectful conversations with them. But since this is not possible for those who are narcissistic or anti-social in nature, keeping exchanges brief and light is best to minimise stress or conflict.
Be prepared to employ diversion tactics in conversation.
Being diversionary may not be appreciated in social circles. But if your family member is controlling or looking for conflict, having a mutually respectful conversation may not be possible. As such, their attempts to dominate or argue can be diverted. For example, if they choose to criticise your choice about what you bought, you can note their comment while affirming your choice. Then this can be followed up by you changing the topic. This may allow you to have some control while you may be under attacked.
Recognise the traits that make you an easy prey.
For some, the need to dominate can be influenced by their perception that you have difficulty standing up for yourself. Their view that you are unable to be firm in protecting yourself may appear as an invitation to them to bully or dominate. Learning to stand your ground will help to establish yourself as deserving of respect.
Expect their angry response but do not surrender to it.
Your attempts to hold your ground or establish personal boundaries may be seen as a threat to the controlling parent or spouse. They see it as a challenge to their need to dominate or control. As such, anger can be employed as their weapon. It is important to not be paralysed by the person and to remember that you still have power. This power may not be accepted by them but you have power nevertheless. You can continue to pursue what is clearly in your best interests despite the threats and anger they express. Choosing the right timing to pursue your interests with them may be required. Or being able to refer to the credibility of someone else with authority on the subject may be helpful to borrow these views to help you to hold your position.
Aim to be self-sufficient and independent.
The need to establish your healthy sense of self and personal integrity is important. Your own mental health depends on it. In the face of parents or family members who are clearly focused against your best interests in pursuit of their own interests, you can set goals to be financially independent in order to become autonomous with what is needed to establish your own integrity and identity. Unhealthy parents often employ money as a means of keeping the child dependent. As such, learning to budget and be self-financing will help to establish your independence from them.
Do not accept abusive behaviour and the effects of it.
Recognising the signs of mistreatment from abusive parents, spouses or siblings should allow you to feel the anger you have reason to feel. Often these people may also engage in seduction or manipulation to downplay their dysfunction and hide their mistreatment of you. Being able to recognise their self-serving bias and the potential damage that this can create is important to not allow them to justify it. If their mistreatment is justified, it is more likely that you could minimise the damage and practice it yourself.
If the abuse is persistent or violent, be prepared to get help and seek shelter and protection outside the family.
This is hard to do for children but the sad reality is that some parents are poorly prepared to parent or they are mentally ill when they decided to have children. It is a sad and tragic reality that children have died from neglect, abuse or mistreatment while in the hands of their parents or caregivers. Children have been starved, exploited, tortured in the hands of violent, mentally ill parents. This has also occurred between couples as indicated by one spouse being regularly abused by another. Abuse can be physical, emotional and/or sexual, and they can happen between couples and on children within a marital or family system. If only one parent is aggressive or violent, the other parent has to be prepared to seek shelter to protect themselves or their children. If in the case of one parent being violent and the other parent ignores the child being abused, the children need to be protected from both parents.
This article is a call to alert those who may be suffering within families. Tragically, there are hidden dangers that vulnerable family members may be exposed to. They may already be suffering in subtle or obvious ways at the hands of unhealthy, abusive or emotionally damaging family members. Our collective concern for the weak calls out for us to be sensitive to when this danger is present within our community to protect the vulnerable among us.
Faubion, D. (2020, Apr). Toxic family dynamics: the signs and how to cope with them.
Chen, C. (2015, Feb 25). What to do when the toxic people in your life are (unfortunately) your parents. The Huffington Post.
Streep, P. (2016, Dec 14). 8 strategies for dealing with the toxic people in your life. Psychology Today.
Thorpe, J. (2015, Sep 18). 7 tips for dealing with toxic parents. Bustle.