Getting a Handle on Sibling Rivalry

“Mom, Billy pulled Barbie’s head off again!” “I know you are, but what am I?” “Dad, Jenny looked at me!” Sound familiar? It does if you have more than one child in your home. Sibling rivalry; a common pattern of negative interaction between children of the same family that dates as far back as the Old Testament and the story of Cain and Abel.

Even though it can make you want to scream and pull your hair out, sibling rivalry is normal and can even be constructive if handled properly. Day to day interactions between siblings and parents help children learn important skills such as problem solving and negotiating and how to develop self-control and an attitude of cooperation.

Sibling rivalry is typically an outgrowth of a child’s immature attempts to gain their parent’s love, attention, acceptance and approval. When emotions such as jealousy, envy and frustration are combined with impulsivity and underdeveloped social skills, conflict is inevitable. Although you may not be able to totally eliminate the rivalry between your children, you can greatly reduce it by following some of these tips.

1. Establish clear family rules and communicate them regularly

Many elementary schools post signs around their campus that say, “No Put Down Zone” and “I’m a Peace Builder”. These signs serve as a constant reminder to students of what is and is not acceptable behavior on school grounds. Identifying and creatively posting your own family rules around the house will help your children know what is expected of them.

2. Let your children work out the more minor squabbles on their own

Unless your children are physically hurting each other or clearly heading out of control, resist the temptation to intervene at the first sign of a disagreement. Let your children know that you trust them to work out their own problems and that their arguing or complaining will not win them your attention. Also, make sure that you give them plenty of opportunity to watch you and your spouse successfully resolve your own differences.

3. Don’t avoid arguments by trying to be fair

When a parent goes out of their way to make sure treats, hugs, privileges, etc. are always equally distributed among their children in an attempt to avoid an argument they are encouraging comparisons by the children. Whenever your children sense that something is inequitable or “unfair” they are more likely to draw your attention to it by complaining or arguing. No matter how hard you try to make things equal, children are likely to find something about it that’s unfair. Therefore, give based on individual need rather than what might seem fair.

4. Avoid comparing your children

“Matthew never got in trouble at school, so why do you have to?” Comparing either the good or bad behaviors of your children can set up a competitive environment in the home and potentially discount the individual qualities of your children.

5. Give your children an open forum for sharing their thoughts and feelings

Children need to be heard. By simply listening to your child’s point of view and validating their feelings you can quickly diffuse the frustration and anger that often leads to conflict. For example, “It sounds like Timmy really hurt your feelings.” “It wasn’t right for Sue to take your coat without asking. How did you feel when that happened?”

6. Spend time alone with each child

Playing games or engaging in other activities as a family is good, but it can’t replace the benefits of spending one-on-one time with your children. Spending special time with each child individually can better meet their need for attention and decrease the potential for jealousy and envy.

7. Don’t take sides by focusing on who’s at fault

Trying to figure out who started a conflict between children is virtually a guessing game. Even if you have a good idea who started things taking sides by focusing on who’s to blame only makes matters worse. Let your children know that if they can’t work out their differences on their own, everyone involved will share equally in the responsibility for the conflict.

8. Play games with your children that encourage and teach social skills and values

Play non-competitive games together that teach problem solving and conflict resolution skills as well as the value of honoring another person’s perspective. One such game is called the Ungame and it can be found in most toy stores. Your child’s teacher or your local bookstore can also recommend others.

9. Take constructive action

When it is necessary for you to intervene in your children’s conflict separate them until they have calmed down. Tell them that before they can play together again they must both come up with at least one idea related to how their conflict could have been avoided or resolved without your involvement. Role playing their ideas can be fun and will better prepare them for the future.

10. Affirm your children when they get along well together

Behavior that is positively reinforced is more likely to be repeated. When you see your children following the rules let them know how much you appreciate their behavior.

Parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world, but nothing is more worthwhile or rewarding than watching your children learn to get along with each other and with people outside your home. Good relationship skills will help them be more successful in every area of life – career, marriage and friendships. Hang in there Mom and Dad – it won’t last forever!

Live, Work and Relate Well!

Dr. Todd

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