Youth Focus: What is a parent to do about sibling rivalry?


If you have more than one child you are no stranger to the age-old problem of sibling rivalry. We all seem to have it at one time or another. We read books, talk to other parents and sometimes even enlist the help of a therapist in order to the fighting words and actions between brothers and sisters, resentment and competition, constant or intense intermittent friction and hurt feelings and family disharmony due to constant sibling bickering.

I know this so well. My older children were five years apart. I remember thinking they would never fight because there was such an age difference. Boy was I wrong. They fought about anything and everything and continue to do so to this day.

Your children will appreciate one another and battle less by learning habits to help them get along, share their concerns, and solve their conflicts peacefully. We as parents often hear from our kids that we are not being fair or we are accused of favoring one child over the other.

According to parenting expert Michele Borba, Ed.D, we should not go crazy trying to make things equal among siblings – it’s impossible! Most importantly, don’t have unrealistic expectations for continued harmony, because resentment is inevitable and often times unavoidable.

The truth is, your kids don’t have to like each other or even get along every minute, but they do have to respect each other’s feelings and be considerate of the need for empathy and stability in the entire family. If you stress that principle, you will increase the likelihood that they will get along. After all, the benchmarks of any strong relationship are empathy and respect.

Many studies have shown that the closer your kids are in age, the more likely there are to be squabbles. Keep in mind that research shows that kids spend about a third of their free time with siblings – that’s more time than they spend with parents, teachers or friends.

Although you can’t force your kids to like each other, there are ways to fend off some of those battles, and some skills you can teach that will minimize jealousies and help your kids appreciate one another so that they are more apt to get along. All siblings will have squabbles and tiffs, but here are signs that their rivalry and battles are in need of an assistance:

• Escalating argument, name-calling, yelling, hitting and punching.

• Increased animosity and destroying each other’s possessions or relationships.

• Deteriorating emotional well being. One sibling or both feel less loved or favored; self esteem and feelings of belonging as a member of your family are affected.

• Family disharmony. Despite your best efforts, the relationship between the siblings is strained or the rivalry is escalating and the conflict is having an impact on your family’s happiness and stability.

Katherine Conger, a family sociologist at University of California Davis (UCD) visited the homes of 384 adolescents and their siblings three times over three years to see how well they interacted as a family. She also videotaped family members working through sample conflicts and then concluded that 65 percent of moms and 70 percent of dads showed a clear preference for one child. In most cases it was the oldest sibling.

What’s more, the kids could identify the favorite to the researcher. Although the “unfavored” tried to brush it off as not a big deal, they clearly were sadder and felt somehow unworthy. Beware: kids do pick up on parental feelings and preferences, especially when it comes to sibling favorites, causing a lifetime of resentment.

Here are some common causes of sibling rivalry and battles:

• Your kids’ temperament, personalities, abilities, priorities and styles are very different.

• Siblings have different parents; you are a blended family.

• Siblings are not given opportunities to share feelings of discontent, so animosity builds.

• Siblings are not allowed to explore their individual interest or have privacy; they have no “alone time” to develop relationships.

• Financial difficulties, marital conflicts, illness, or trauma lead to strained family dynamics.

• Siblings lack vocabulary, skills or maturity to solve problems or share concerns.

• Siblings are imitating adult behavior. They see you fighting with your spouse, sibling, mother or boss.

• One sibling has special needs or is overly aggressive or impulsive.

Identify the trigger. Try to witness – without their awareness – a sibling conflict. Tune into their behavior before the fighting starts.

Which behavior, perpetrated by one of both kids, escalates the situation, such as insulting, hitting, swearing etc.

What are the common battle issues? For instance, both kids want to play with the same item or use the computer at the same time. Maybe each wants to watch a different television program at the same time.

Is there any solution you could implement that might minimize or prevent the problem? For example, you might buy duplicate toys, arrange a computer schedule, teach a skill that might defuse the conflict before it becomes full blown.

Once the conflict began, how did you respond, and how did your kids react to your response? Did you escalate, reduce, or neutralize the conflict?

Is there one simple solution you can implement to reduce the change that the same problem will arise in the future?

Take a reality check. Might it be possible that you are playing favorites or putting too much pressure on one kid or another? Be honest. Do you . . .

Expect more of one child?

Give one child more attention?

Take sides?

Listen to one kid’s side more or assume one kid is right?

Compare your kids in front of each other?

Encourage rivalry in academics, sports or popularity by acknowledging one kid over another?

Pay equal attention to each child’s hobbies, friends, school and interests?

Distribute chores, rewards and opportunities fairly?

Light up with the same intensity when you see each of your kids?

Sometimes it is helpful to take an inventory. Make a list of what you like most and what you like least about each child. If your list is more slanted to one side or the other, it may signal that you have a potential problem. Do you need to change your response? How?

Reduce sibling competition. Watch out for daily moments that may actually be setting your kids up as rivals. Here are a few things to avoid because they can lead to resentment:

Never compare

Avoid labels

Encourage teamwork

Nurture unique strengths and differences

Give a little privacy

Acknowledge cooperation

Always try to stay neutral. Most research finds that the more involved you get in your kids’ tiffs, the more likely they are to engage in sibling rivalry. Siblings need to learn how to work out problems on their own. So intervene before an argument escalates. If the conflict does get heated, stay neutral and make suggestions only when your kids seem stuck.

Find time alone for each child. Depending on your schedule, set aside blocks of time when each of your children can have your exclusive attention while the other siblings are gone or another adult watches them. Take turn taking each of the children on special outings, such as shopping, seeing a movie, or getting an ice cream.

Here are five house rules to curb sibling tiffs. Each rule must be enforced consistently for results.

• No yelling. Family members must use calm voices

• No taking without asking. Permission of the owner must be granted before borrowing, using or taking property.

• No hurtful behavior such as hitting or name-calling.

• No involvement without evidence. Get involved only if you actually saw or heard the conflict.

• No tattling

Lastly, develop these habits for change:

• Encourage outside friendships. Each child needs his own group of friends outside of the family. Don’t allow the other sibling to annoy the other child when they have a friend over.

• Always try to see if from the other side. Kids often get so caught up in feeling they are being treated unfairly that they don’t stop and think how the other person might be feeling.

• Start family meetings. Don’t let animosity build up among siblings. It will only lead to more conflict and resentment. Family meetings provide a safe outlet where everyone can speak freely and conflicts can be resolved.


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