Susan C. Stone's Practical Parenting Blog dotcom

Sibling Rivalry – How You can Fuel the Fire or Put out the Flames

Posted on: January 25, 2012


The relationship siblings have is an important one – it can impact on people’s lives and identities as much as  their relationships with their parents do. This  can be a positive impact and enhance one’s life or it can be negative and the source of continuing problems in other relationships – even into adulthood! Because of this, it’s important for parents to help make their children’s relationships as good as possible. By your behavior you  have the ability to stoke the fire of the rivalry or to lessen it.The one thing you can’t do is eliminate it! But that’s not necessarily bad news. Children learn a lot from their relationships with their siblings – how to win, how to lose, how to negotiate, compromise and share, how to be angry with someone and still love them.  Your job as a parent is to make sure that the sibling interaction isn’t harmful – either psychologically, physically or emotionally.

One important step towards minimizing sibling rivalry and keeping it from being harmful  is to NOT COMPARE your children – either out loud to them or even in your mind. No two children are alike – they have different strengths and weaknesses. Good parents respect this and teach their children to respect it. This should lead to having unique expectations and measures of success for each child. Comparisons are also often used to try to motivate desirable behavior by pointing out to a child how their sibling is doing a better job (at being mannerly, cleaning up their room, doing their homework, etc.). Now honestly, did it ever spur you on to greater heights when your parents said, “Why can’t you keep your room neat  the way your sister does?”?!  All it did was make you angry – at your parent and at your sister!  The rule of thumb is to speak to each of your children as if they were ONLY children. No comparisons allowed. However, even if you do follow this advice, you’ll find your children comparing themselves – “I’m smarter than you are”. This is an opportunity to have a discussion about respecting individual differences and your expectations for personal bests and best efforts.

Another way parents worsen sibling relationships is by, consciously or unconsciously, casting children in fixed roles. For example,  the oldest child is treated as the caretaker, the youngest has less expected from them, a good listener becomes a  confidante for the parent. Similarly,  parents also stamp children  with labels – “This is my athlete.” ” This is my scholar.” “This is my wild one”. These assigned labels and role – even positive ones – put limits on who a child might have the potential to become. Instead, try to think about who you would like the child to become and praise behaviors which manifest those possibilities. Also, be alert to negative roles that children may choose for themselves – the clown, the  helpless one, the dictator – as a way to be unique within the family. In such cases, encourage them to get attention and rewards for more desirable roles and behaviors.

Having said all this, let’s talk about the secret that many parents carry around and about which they feel guilty – favorites. Is it terrible or unnatural to have a favorite child? NO! Sometimes your personality or needs just mesh better with one child than another.  You’re human and can’t deny these responses. However, what you can control is the expression of favoritism which feeds sibling rivalry more than any other parental behavior. Now I know you don’t say things like “Susie is my favorite”. Favoritism is expressed subtly – smiling more at one child, being more lenient, using more terms of endearment, etc.  The cure for showing favoritism is  to be aware of it and to look for the specialness to appreciate in your less favored child.

While you may not show favoritism, a common manifestation of sibling rivalry is children vying to occupy the top spot, or at least tie for it.  When children try to make everything equal, this is what you’re witnessing.. Does this sound familiar? “Johnny has 12 grapes on his plate and I only have 11!”  Most parents rush to equalize the situation with the goal of not showing favoritism, often driving themselves crazy in the diplomacy of it all.  I’ll let you off the hook! It’s not your job to make everything equal – time, love, items. It’s your job to meet the unique needs of each child and to let them know that is your goal. DO NOT  engage in arguments about giving or loving equally. And when asked the immortal question   – “Who do you love the most?” – answer by listing the special things you love about that particular child.

Despite your following all this advice, your children are going to bug each other –  about territory, property, because they are jealous of a sibling’s birthday, because they had a disagreement at school with a friend, even because it’s fun!.  A sibling is a convenient place to dump negative feelings about many things. While this is inevitable, you need to set limits on how this is expressed. What is disallowed is emotional, psychological or physical harm. You can prevent some of this by not modeling name-calling, cruel remarks or physical reactions of your own in handling your anger. Other preventive measures which lessen negative sibling interaction:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          1. Allow children to express their anger towards their siblings to you without judging or discounting it. Getting  it off their chest lets  them feel better about the sibling.

2.Don’t reward tattling by acting on it.

3.Make sure to give children adequate time and space of their own.

4.Spend time alone with each of your child so they feel they “have” you for a time.

5.Set  rules for sharing and encourage a sharing attitude between everyone in the family.

6.Teach conflict resolution skills.

7.Foresee trouble and act to avoid it – for example, ban high conflict games, arrange seating to lessen opportunities for conflict at meals, etc.

8.Hold family meetings in which the whole family addresses a grievance of each child and seeks a solution together.

9.Utilize “team” reward charts with which children can earn special activities if the team gets along for a period of time.

10.Plan fun family activities that promote goodwill among siblings.

11. Teach family loyalty as a value.

Finally, when the arguing and bickering start, give children a chance to solve it themselves, which they often will. If they try to drag you into it, NEVER choose a winner and a loser (since  you don’t now the full story and will never know “who started it”). If the incident escalates into a damaging emotional, psychological or physical interaction, separate your children for a cool down period., then let them try to be together again ( which they usually want). If this doesn’t work, it may be a day they need to spend doing separate activities.

All of these measures will reduce sibling rivalry. However, be prepared for your children not to be compatible. Your goal should be mutual respect  and some peace. The good news is that as siblings become older, they generally have a better relationship if the bad feelings haven’t been cemented  while they were growing up.

Susan C. Stone is a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Los Angeles for 33 years.She speaks widely to the parents and teachers of children of all ages. Ms. Stone appears regularly on both radio and television as a parenting expert and is the author of THE INDULGENCE TRAP – When too much is not Enough!

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