Sibling Rivalry—Tips for Parents and Referees

No Cure-All

No matter which enlightened measures you implement or how much control you demonstrate, do not expect miraculous results. Raising kids is a messy business and an inexact science. Sibling fights are bound to continue, even if parents heed the experts’ advice.

Virginia Molgaard, family life specialist at Iowa State University, puts it this way:

“It takes time and persistence for parents to learn ways of treating their children and for children to learn ways of getting along. But don’t give up. It may even seem like it is getting worse before it gets better, but in the long run, you will be teaching your children how to get along better. That will prepare them for important relationships in the future.”

While a bit of bickering here and there is no cause for concern, parents dealing with constant fighting and arguing need to formulate a strategy for calming the waters. The objectives are to lessen the fighting and reduce your own stress level—and the stakes are high. Your children’s ability to develop and maintain healthy relationships in the future rides on your ability to effectively manage their quarrels today.

A Natural History

The root cause of sibling rivalry is one of competition for limited resources, which in nature is usually for food, but in a household is more likely for toys, TV or the bathroom. It is a problem that parents the world over have faced ever since Cain smote his little brother Abel.

In nature, there are some stunning examples of sibling rivalry that make the screams and taunts of an everyday play time seem positively tame. For example, big baby sharks devour their little brothers and sisters in order to ensure that they receive all the food resources available to the shark family. Similarly, first-born baby eaglets shove their little siblings out of the nest to their deaths so as to guarantee their daily portion.

Siblings in human families often appear to have the same homicidal urges as little sharks and eagles. However, in the human family’s case, the scarce resources for which the young ones compete are the parents’ time, attention, love and approval.

It tends to begin when the second child starts horning in on the attention the oldest child had been enjoying exclusively, and the older sibling retaliates by initiating a subtle campaign of terror to make the younger sibling’s life miserable. Eventually, the younger sibling joins battle with an array of tactics designed to frustrate and annoy the older sibling.

What Parents Can Do

Again, sibling rivalry is a fact of life—timeless and universal and shared by all human families. It is not anyone’s fault, merely a sad by-product of original sin. But there are measures parents can take to deal with this vexing problem, one of which begins before a new baby is born.

Early in pregnancy, begin fostering a sense of love, responsibility and support on the part of your young children. Convince them how much you’re going to need their help in caring for the baby. Explain how much the baby will need them, and how their responsibilities will change with the baby’s age. Furthermore, try to space your children to avoid having more than one child needing the same kind of care and attention at one time.

Encourage siblings to express their feelings. All too often, parents attempt to talk children out of their feelings by ordering them to stop complaining or pointing out that their sibling is the only brother or sister they have. But this approach rarely gets through. Siblings tend to fight less when parents verbalize the feelings they are experiencing.

“Sounds like you’re pretty mad at Mikey,” you can say to the antagonist, which very often elicits a momentary pause, followed by an acknowledgment that this is precisely the way the child feels. Almost instantly the time bomb is defused.

If you get there late, calmly but firmly separate the warring factions and lead them to separate rooms. Talk to them and try to resolve the problem after they’ve cooled down. And always encourage win-win negotiations wherein both sides gain something in the settlement.

STAR Parenting

Elizabeth Crary, author of Help! The Kids Are At It Again, says kids need to learn to trade, wait, bargain or negotiate instead of fight. She believes most kids’ conflicts are due to unresolved developmental issues, i.e., not knowing any other way to get what they want.

“In order for children to act responsibly,” Crary explains, “they need to be able to distinguish between that which they can control and that which they cannot. Before they can get along, there are four basic people skills they need to learn: 1) constructive ways to get attention; 2) exploring of boundaries; 3) dealing with feelings; and 4) solving problems.”

Parents, she advises, must not get caught up in solving their kids’ problems. Children cooperate only if they have the skills, and the skills can be learned. “It’s important to encourage children to begin communicating with each other in order to start the problem-solving process. Parents should strive to become their children’s “coach” rather than their referee.”

In order to develop these coaching skills, Crary proposes what she calls the STAR Parenting concept. The idea is to clearly define roles and power positions among family members so as to avoid arguments over fixed issues like bedtimes and curfews. The four principles of STAR Parenting include:

Stop and focus. Remain calm and in control. Acknowledge your feelings by saying something like, “I’m really frustrated with all the bickering.” Then take a deep breath and regroup.

Think of ideas. The goal is to deter the children from fighting. Compile a list of go-to ideas for diffusing situations and distracting children’s attention.

Act effectively. Be proactive; don’t just react. Consider your kids’ needs as well as your own in choosing the right go-to idea.

Review and revise. Be flexible. Not all ideas will have the desired effect. Try different plans until you find something that works.

General Tips and Measures

Provide activities that children of different ages can do together. Older children get frustrated with younger siblings because they want to play but have limited skills. Teach older children how to give younger children a simple task to involve them in play.

Teach your children how to negotiate, compromise and brainstorm. Learning to trade one toy for another and take turns are a child’s first lesson in negotiation. Show a toddler how to trade for a toy rather than just grab for it. If there is serious competition for a particular item, use a timer. And if children can’t agree on what to play, help them brainstorm ideas until they can come up with something they both agree on.

There are a number of additional guidelines to consider in effecting a lasting ceasefire in your home:

• Try to strike a balance between too much and too little satisfaction of your children’s wishes.

• Plan and carry out frequent “family activities” with all of your children to foster a sense of togetherness and camaraderie.

• Tailor your parenting techniques to fit the needs of each child’s unique temperament in order to develop the best possible character in your child.

• Spend one-on-one time with each child. Share your experiences with them and encourage them to do the same with you. Foster a sense of healthy competition instead of open conflict.

• Get each child to “confess” what his or her wrong action was, thus shifting the tendency from blaming to taking responsibility.

• Teach your children to be happy about their siblings’ accomplishments.

Most young children will need an adult’s help in thinking through these processes. Even though it requires a time investment, emphasizing these principles over and over gives the children solid grounding in identifying a problem and coming up with ways to solve them on their own. A child who has ample practice brainstorming different ways of solving a problem is much more likely to solve conflicts independently and in a positive way.

What Parents Should Not To Do

At all costs, avoid comparing siblings, as this will almost always create resentments. Comparisons rarely, if ever, encourage better behavior. They only serve to intensify jealousy and envy. Instead, try to comment only on the objectionable behavior and steer clear of measuring one child’s qualities or deficiencies against the other’s.

In the same vein, refrain from taking sides in children’s fights, even when it is obvious who is the persecutor and persecuted. Instead, allow the children to work out their differences themselves. As often as possible, avoid getting involved in their minor altercations. This forces them to solve their problems on their own.

In addition, never show approval for a negative or destructive behavior. Avoid games and contests in which one child wins and another loses. And avoid yelling or lecturing as a means of settling conflicts.

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