Handling Sibling Rivalry
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Handling Sibling Rivalry

Tips for maintaining harmony on the home front when siblings can't seem to get along.

The Root of the Problem

Dr. Ava

Q. I feel like my kids are constantly at each other's throats -- and I know I'm not the only parent with this problem. What's behind sibling rivalry and how should we handle it?

A. Sibling rivalry makes kids and parents miserable! Once you understand these normal competitive feelings, you'll be in a better position to create a family life that is free of strife. Let's take a look at some factors that can increase sibling rivalry and explore possible ways of limiting these conflicts.

When Parental Conflict is the Culprit

Not surprisingly, kids do what we do, not what we say, so couples who constantly compete with and criticize each other are likely to have children who identify with these hostile behaviors, and carry them into their relationship to their siblings. In other words, parents who fight produce siblings who fight.

What To Do:

First, take stock of your marital relationship. If you've been fighting a lot in front of your children, stop! Try to work things through with your spouse when your kids are out of the house or asleep. If your conflicts are too volatile to contain, get some marital counseling to decrease the anger between you.

Second, set appropriate limits on aggressive fighting among your children. While some rivalrous feelings between siblings are to be expected, don't assume that nastiness between siblings is "natural." When fighting escalates beyond tolerable boundaries, don't leave it to your kids to "fight it out." Children, particularly those under 6, need a lot of adult help to modulate their aggressive impulses. It's your job to help them by stating clear expectations for self-control. ("Hitting is not allowed in our family.")

Third, don't discourage your children from honestly expressing what's on their minds. It's understandable that you don't like hearing your child express angry or hating feelings. But telling a child, "What a terrible thing to say! You don't really hate your sister. Say you're sorry!" pushes these feelings underground, where they build up steam and explode. Instead, offer understanding of your child's experience, "I know you're very angry with Naomi because she ruined your block building. I'm afraid she's too young to understand how hard you worked on that tower. I'm going to try harder to keep her out of your way."

By limiting aggressive behavior but permitting the expression of aggressive thoughts and feelings, you'll actually diminish sibling rivalry, in the long run.

Dangers of Playing Favorites

When a parent shows special favor to one child over another, sibling rivalries get intensified. Not only is the less-favored child likely to feel anger, envy and hostility towards the more-favored child, the more-favored child is also burdened with a heavy dose of guilt. ("Why am I loved and my sister isn't?") Parents who play favorites increase sibling rivalries.

What To Do:

Try to become more aware of your feelings about your own personality, interests, talents and birth order. For example, if you are a first-born child, you may find that you tend to favor your own first-born child. Or if you're athletic or scientific or musical, you may feel closer to the child who appears to share your skills. Challenge yourself to be fair-minded.

Recognize that each of your children is a unique individual. Instead of comparing one to another, ("Why aren't you more like your brother?") encourage each child's strengths and offer support for each child's weaknesses.

Remember that being fair does not mean that you must treat all of your children the same. Let each child know that your job is to recognize and respond to his particular needs, which may be different from his sister or brother's needs. ("You need to go to sleep earlier than Ben, because you're 2 years younger. When you're 5 years old, your bedtime can be at 8:00 p.m.")

When Siblings Are Close in Age

While having children three or four years apart is no guarantee of a smooth sibling relationship, (and children who are less than two years apart can be close comrades) in general, closely-spaced siblings are more likely to be rivalrous, particularly if the siblings are of the same gender. That's because one child's achievements are likely to be right on the heels of the other's, increasing tensions between them. (Who's a better reader? Who's taller? Who can run faster?).

In addition, parents of closely-spaced siblings are more likely to feel overwhelmed and depleted by childcare, and have more difficulties giving each child the kind of individual attention she needs. What all of this means is that closely-spaced siblings are more likely to see each other as rivals, both in achievement and attention.

What To Do:

It's tempting to "lump" kids together when they're close in age, doing the same activities for both of them, but this means that your kids are constantly compelled to compete with each other for your love and attention. This increases their rivalry. It's a better idea to set aside separate time for each child, even if it's only 15 minutes a day.

Use empathy to help your child manage rivalrous feelings, instead of dismissing or denying them. This kind of response lets your child know you understand him, ("I know that sometimes you feel as if I'm paying more attention to the baby than to you. Babies do need a lot of care, but you're always my best big boy and I always love you.") In contrast, this kind of response increases a child's resentment and makes her feel abandoned: "Why do you always whine for attention when I need to take care of the baby. You're so spoiled! You're a big girl and you don't need me as much as the baby does."

Finally, keep in mind that no matter how effective you are as a parent, there are no siblings without some measure of rivalry. But if you understand how to keep these feelings within appropriate bounds, you can help your children feel good about themselves, as well as each other.

Dr. Siegler is the director of the Institute for Child, Adolescent and Family Studies in New York City, and the author of two award-winning books for parents, "What Should I Tell the Kids? A Parent's Guide to Real Problems in the Real World," and "The Essential Guide to the New Adolescence: How to Raise an Emotionally Healthy Teenager." She is married and the mother of two children.