Handling Sibling Rivalry

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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.


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