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Video: Secrets of sisterhood

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updated 3/18/2008 9:45:27 AM ET 2008-03-18T13:45:27

The publishing world was shocked to learn that the gang-life memoir “Love and Consequences” was a fake. But even more startling was how that came to light.

The author, Margaret Seltzer, was exposed by her own sister.

While it isn’t clear why Ms. Seltzer’s older sister, Cyndi Hoffman, took on the role of whistleblower (neither sister returned phone calls), the incident throws a spotlight on society’s conflicted expectations of sisterhood. Even while criticizing Ms. Seltzer for her fabrication, some blog writers turned their ire on Ms. Hoffman, calling her a “tattletale” and speculating that she must have been jealous of her sister’s success.

“People were almost as fascinated by the fact that it was her sister as they were with the whole story,” said Marcia Millman, a sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the author of “The Perfect Sister: What Draws Us Together, What Drives Us Apart.”

“We have powerful expectations of loyalty from a sister,” she added. “But along with the idealized image of sisters, that they are always close, there is a stereotype that sisters are very competitive. It’s the two extremes.”

Psychology literature is filled with studies on the complexity of sibling relationships, which are typically the longest relationships we have in a lifetime. And while much of the research deals with siblings in general, sisters get much of the attention because survey data suggest they tend to have more contact as adults than other sibling pairs. While this means sisters often remain close, particularly as they get older, it also creates more opportunity for conflict and rivalry.

“A sister will know just what to say to cheer her sister up and just what to say to flood her with self-doubt,” said Terri Apter, a University of Cambridge psychologist and the author of “The Sister Knot.”

Parents like to hope that their children will form a close bond that lasts into adulthood. But while we choose our friends and rely on our parents, siblings remain in our lives by neither choice nor necessity. Instead, they represent competition for our parents’ attention.

“There are children who feel stuck with a sibling,” said Judy Dunn, professor of developmental psychology at King’s College in London and a leading scholar on sibling relationships. “It’s a relationship that is completely uninhibited. If you feel irritable with your sibling, you yank their hair or say the one thing you know will annoy them.”

Many parents assume children will outgrow their differences. But research shows that childhood sibling behavior, good or bad, often continues into adulthood. “We do know that there is a lot of evidence for continuity,” Dr. Dunn said. “The pairs who get on very well when they’re little ones are also likely to be quite positive to each other later on.”

Fighting with a sibling is a normal part of childhood, and surveys suggest that young children have about five sibling conflicts a day, Dr. Apter says. In families as in nature, sibling battles may actually serve a purpose, bringing more parental attention to both children: In a nest that includes cowbird chicks, for instance, the more jostling and competition for food, the harder the parents work to feed all of them.

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But some parents unknowingly sabotage sibling relationships by putting too much responsibility on the older child. Older children often have to play with younger siblings and help care for them, creating resentment. And some parents make the mistake of treating the older child as a confidant, disrupting the sibling relationship.

“It puts a burden on the older child when you turn them into your confidant,” Dr. Millman said. “It effectively separates the child from peers.”

But one of the biggest mistakes parents make is always expecting children to resolve their own conflicts.

“When you ask parents what are the best ways to help kids manage their conflicts, they will tell you the right things — talk with kids together, get each one to tell their side, help them find a solution,” said Laurie Kramer, professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But when you look at what parents actually do — and we’ve done this by hooking kids up with wireless mikes — we see that the most common strategy when kids are having conflict is to actually do nothing.”

In studies of sibling pairs from birth to high school, Dr. Kramer has found that a child’s socialization with friends before the arrival of a sibling can predict a more positive relationship, according to a 2005 report in The Journal of Family Psychology that followed 28 sibling pairs from age 4 to adolescence.

Based on her research, Dr. Kramer has developed an intervention aimed at 4-to-8-year-olds to reduce sibling conflict. Children who complete the program play better together and have more positive interaction, she says.

In one exercise, fighting siblings are each given a pair of toy glasses. “We teach them ‘see it your way, see it my way,’ ” Dr. Kramer said. “It’s a visual way to get an abstract idea across.”

Emotional control can be taught by asking children to take a break and draw a picture to illustrate their feelings. Relaxation techniques during which a child learns to tense muscles then relax can also help.

Another exercise mimics “The Newlywed Game”: Siblings are quizzed about a brother’s or sister’s likes and dislikes. “They think they know some things about brothers and sisters, but it turns out they learn about some differences,” Dr. Kramer said.

No parent can intervene in every sibling dispute, but Dr. Kramer says parents can make their job easier in the long run by taking some time to mediate sibling fights and help children learn perspective and emotional control.

“It’s important to not just say, ‘Work it out yourself,’ ” she said. “The kids need to have the skills to do that.”

Tara Parker-Pope writes about health for the New York Times. Visit her "Well" blog.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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