Handling Sibling Rivalry

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

Continued on page 2:  Dangers of Playing Favorites


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