004. What Hocus Pocus Can Teach You About Sibling Rivalry

004. What Hocus Pocus Can Teach You About Sibling Rivalry

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In this episode we are reviewing Dr. Tsunami’s favorite Halloween movie, Hocus Pocus! This movie covers the experience of a set of siblings as they navigate through their first Halloween in a new town. We discuss the impact of birth order on parenting styles. Then the episode touches on the importance of treating your children with equity. Lastly, Dr. Tsunami talks about how to reduce sibling fighting for a calmer and more peaceful home.

Time Stamps

3:00 Movie Summary

4:09 Birth Order Theory

8:09 Parenting with equity not equality

10:33 What to do when your children fight with each other


I know you’re a very busy person and you haven’t got all day, so I’m here to help you, stressed-out parents, with upset kids, access a clearer understanding of how to calm down your children. I’m your host, Dr. Tsunami Turner. Today we are doing a very special Halloween episode and talking about my favorite Halloween movie, Hocus Pocus. I’ll be discussing birth order theory, things to keep in mind when parenting multiple children, and sharing some tips for managing sibling rivalry.

Intro Music

Welcome back! Today we will be talking about sibling rivalry and sibling bonds as portrayed in Hocus Pocus. Now, I’m a little biased being the eldest sibling in my family, but I feel like being the first is the best position. You get alone time with your parents for the first few months/years of your life when they're really motivated to be at their best and then later you get thrust into a position of power where you can give commands to your younger siblings and be admired and listened to… well at least for a minute. I mean I guess being the youngest has its perks too. I mean you barely have to lift a finger. Things are just done for you and everyone looks out for you. You’re not the guinea pig in the family because your parents have already done this new kid thing. Alright being a middle child isn’t as bad as people seem to think. Because you’re in the middle you can get away with things and you develop a lot more social connections outside of your family. Those skills can really serve you when you go out into the world.

Regardless of your birth order I think we can agree that there are going to be things you like and things you don’t like about your position and role in the family. Of course, real life human beings aren’t as clear cut as movie characters so the discussion to come may not fully resonate with your experience of your own birth order or your relationship with your siblings. I think of birth order theory like I think of astrology. It would be cool if it had the answers, but it’s not a fool proof system. And the world doesn’t allow for absolutes and certainties. So if you had a different experience, cool, we’ll talk about sibling perceptions later on. Now, in Hocus Pocus we are introduced to the Binx’s, Dennison’s, and of course the Sanderson sisters.

As usual there will be spoilers, so please grab some popcorn and go and watch the movie first.

Okay you back? Let’s get into it. Hocus Pocus draws you in right away with little Emily Binx getting the life sucked out of her by the Sanderson Sisters, Winifred, Mary, and Sarah while her older brother Thackey tries and fails to save her. Poor Thackey is turned into a cat and cursed to live forever with the knowledge that he failed his sister. Fortunately, the Sanderson’s are captured and punished for killing children and sucking out their souls so that they can look good… young...ish. As much fun as the sister’s are, soul sucking is not the best method for wrinkle removal. Now Thackey, aka Binx the cat, makes it his mission to make sure that the sisters never return and harm anyone. And he is successful until the Dennison's, Max and Dani, come to town. Wanting to prove that he’s cool and not afraid of evil witches who have sold their souls to the devil, Max lights the black candle prophesied to signal the return of the Sanderson’s. Sure enough they return and the kids spend the rest of Halloween night trying to thwart the sister’s plans to gain immortality.

Birth order research comes from a theory by the psychologist Alfred Adler. Adler says that first-borns are often the ones who are high-achieving, responsible, conservative, competitive, and organized. They are found to have high levels of intelligence, extraversion, and respect for authority. This comes from the fact that after being dethroned by the second child, parent’s expectations turn from doting on the first born to expecting the first born to be the responsible one and set an example for the younger children. Now when the first born loses their role as the only child theory states that they try to earn that attention back from their parents by following the new expectations placed on them. They try their best to please their parents by becoming responsible and taking care of their younger siblings. 

Now as the oldest Winnie is cast as the smart one. She leads her sisters in their plan and gives them each their role and tasks to fulfill, but ultimately it is up to her to make sure everything goes according to plan. Multiple times in the movie you see Mary and Sarah turning to Winnie and asking her what they should do. The same is demonstrated with Binx and Max. They both are trying to protect their little sisters and feel responsible for what happens to them. The whole reason Max is trick-or-treating with Dani is because his parents expect him to take on the role of caretaker in their absence. Now this can be a lot to put on a child and there are a spectrum of ways that first born expectations can impact a child. On one hand being the responsible one who everyone turns to may fit well within their personality and they may thrive in this. On the other hand. Some children can feel resentment towards their parents because they felt they were forced to grow up too quickly and had their childhood taken away from them too soon. The latter children are often the ones that feel and express more anger and annoyance towards their younger siblings, but we’ll get into that a little later.

Now let’s move on to Mary. Mary is the middle child. Adler would say that Mary would feel as though she does not belong in the family. She will have to look outside of the family unit to better understand who she is and her role because she doesn’t really have a role in her own family. Like I mentioned earlier, the middle child is often more sociable and relies on feedback from friends more than family. Middle children tend to act out less because of this. Now in my experience working with families this isn’t always the case. They may withdraw and try to be the “good” kid who doesn’t make waves, but middle children can act out just as much as their siblings because they feel misunderstood. They feel that they have to go big in everything that they do just to get noticed. In Mary’s case she seems equally close to her sisters but in different ways. She looks to Winnie for guidance, but with Sarah she can be silly and carefree. Mary is often singled out and given the short end of the stick… or in this case temperamental vacuum cleaner.

Finally, Sarah is the youngest of the family. Adler’s theory would expect that Sarah would be agreeable but rebellious. She may want to avoid conflict with her older siblings, but also has to search a little to figure out her place in the family and choose a role that isn’t already fulfilled by an older sibling. The youngest child can also be very open to experiences as a way to explore who they are within their family. Sarah is portrayed as a bit of an airhead, but she has a strength in her power to bewitch the children with a song and have them all follow her to certain doom. In some families not much is expected of the youngest child. They are given a pass on things that older siblings might not be so lucky as to have their parents ignore. This could be detrimental and lead to a “failure to launch” situation, or it could feel very belittling once the youngest child grows up to have everyone wanting to put in their two cents.

So why is this important to keep in mind as a parent? Well, first you need to remember that there is no one size fits all parenting skill. Of course, research time and time again has proven that parents who are authoritative produce the most well adjusted children, but within the framework of being an authoritative parent is that how you parent each child is going to have some differences. It has to for each child to be individually successful. Let me go back and define authoritative parenting. Parents who can balance warmth and compassion with fair expectations and consistent limits practice authoritative parenting.

Here’s an example, say Johnny does poorly on a test. Authoritarian parents would punish Johnny for his poor grades and expect that he will improve them if he doesn’t want to get punished again. Permissive parents will let the bad grade slide and not provide any consequence or support. Uninvolved parents won’t even be paying attention to the fact that Johnny has tests. And Authoritative parents will work collaboratively with Johnny to make sure he has what he needs to be successful in school and also understands that poor grades are not acceptable or that education is an important value.

It’s important to know that even when your children grow up in the same house and have the same experiences their perception of the event is going to be totally different from each other. What they remember and what they learn for the situation will be totally different. And that is because of their unique brains. That is why it is important to parent with equity instead of equality. If you try to treat each of your children equally you are doing them a disservice because they each have different strengths and weaknesses, different interests and dislikes, different abilities. It is important to normalize that everyone has problems with something and when you are deciding how to help your children through their problems you have to keep in mind what they are capable of doing and what things are more challenging for them to change. You have to learn to be more flexible in your approach to parenting.

That brings me to my last point, which I promised I would get back to, and that’s what do you do if your kids are fighting with each other. First off there is normalcy in learning how to navigate conflict with your siblings. It’s a safe place to practice verbalizing your boundaries and learning to listen to others' needs. That said, some kids need more support in this area (huh, huh, you see how I connected that to the topic of equity). Siblings tend to be closest when they are all children and when they are all in adulthood. Mainly in adulthood. In those teenage years kids are pulling away from everything as they explore their independence and develop their identity. Hormone fluctuations are making them moodier and everything can become annoying, frustrating, and irritating, but especially siblings.

Oftentimes kids are fighting because one child is trying to receive something that they feel they need from another sibling who is unwilling to give it. For example, if a sibling wants to play and strengthen their bond or create new memories or just feel close, but the other sibling does not reciprocate those feelings at that moment, then it can lead to fights.

Other fights might be from perceived injustices like one sibling playing longer on video games than another. It could be because of a breach in trust or respect like one child is borrowing or touching their sibling’s things. It could just be that one child is feeling overwhelmed or upset about something completely unrelated to the thing your kids are fighting about. Regardless of what is going on, I have some tips from the easiest to the most challenging to implement.

The first way to manage fights is to let your children figure it out for themselves. This is the natural consequences approach. You can’t use this all time, especially if blood has been drawn, but trial and error learning offers longer lasting success. What I mean by that is that if children have to solve their own problems without adult intervention they learn to work things out with other people and build their social skills. This increases their ability to tolerate the differences of other people rather than expect a mediator to determine the outcome of every disagreement they have.

My second recommendation is to support your child in building their problem solving and communication skills. This is much more hands on in that no matter what you are doing you will have to stop the fight as soon as it starts to happen and help each child work through the situation from a calm place. This may mean taking a break from whatever they are starting to argue about and focusing on using coping skills like deep breathing, squeezing a stress ball, getting a hug, or listening to music. Then once everyone is calm you would work together to solve the problem.

The third thing, if the first two don’t work, is family therapy. It can be helpful to have a neutral space with a neutral person to reset a sibling relationship. Family therapy could be just the children, but it should include at least some parent training component. The goal of the therapy would be in two parts. One to build positive experiences between the siblings so that they can practice working as a team and supporting each other; and two to build emotional regulation around competition so that siblings can practice acceptance of winning and losing. Family therapy can also support you in practicing the second recommendation I made.

In Hocus Pocus we can determine that Mary and Sarah have learned to accept Winnie’s say so. Neither one of them would dare speak up for themselves because they are afraid of Winifred’s anger. They have accepted that it is just easier for them to go along with Winnie’s plan. This is an example of what we don’t want to happen. With Dani and Max there are the usual sibling squabbles about privacy and fairness, but there is also respect and admiration for each other.

Your children may not always understand each other, but by teaching them to treat each other with kindness and respect they will value their relationship with each other.

Ending Music


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