Cincinnati Family Magazine

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October 25, 2021

Squashing Sibling Rivalry

Anxiety levels will surely rise again, right? Sure as the sun comes up in the morning, your two little darlings will eventually fall out of love with each other and into yet another conflict. It’s natural. It happens to all kids (and adults) because we are all unique, with different personalities and tastes.

But most adults know how to handle themselves gracefully without losing their self-control. Not so with young children. Kids growing up have to learn to control their tendencies to stomp their feet, pull another’s hair or engage in any other ill-behaved activity.

But must the home be in constant turmoil because kids can’t get along? Parenting expert Adele Faber, co-author of the bestseller, Sibling Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live, Too (Collins Living; $13.99), says no. She says if sibling conflict is creating what feels like a war zone in your home then perhaps it’s time for Mom and Dad to stop and take a look at what they are – or are not – doing about it. Faber says today’s parents are simply rushing through their days with too much to do on their hands and skipping over the child management.

“Parents are more rushed than ever,” says Faber. “The pace of society has accelerated to a degree that it’s anti-parenting. Parenting takes time. Some people like to talk about quality time. They say, ‘It’s not how much time you spend with your child, it’s the quality of the time that counts.’ No. Not true. You can’t have quality without quantity. It doesn’t happen,” Faber says.

And parents want solutions fast. “The biggest sibling concern on most parents’ minds is, ‘What do I do when my children are fighting?’ There is no simple answer,” says Faber. “Every situation and each child is different. Factors such as the age of the children and the nature of the fighting are important.”

So while one of today’s school-of-thoughts is parents should leave their kids alone to learn to work out their problems on their own, some experts say that’s old thinking.

It used to be, kids fought to get a reaction from their parents, so stay out of it, writes Haim G. Ginott in the book, Between Parent and Child (Three Rivers Press; $13.95), the best-selling book on parent and child communication. “But the true belief now is that kids need more than that from us. As siblings get older, they find more sophisticated ways of tormenting each other. It’s crucial that parents pay attention to this kind of hurtful behavior because it can have a far-reaching impact on self-esteem and outside relationships.”

Parents can aim to act as coaches, gently guiding kids through their conflicts when the kids can’t work it out themselves, while also helping them hone the skills they need to communicate. But no matter what, advises Faber, try not to rush matters.

“Parents want to fix things,” she says. “They can’t bear to see their children in conflict. What I’d like parents to know is that their kids don’t have to be constantly happy. The message in the home should be that your tears are as welcome as your laughter. I’ll accept you when you’re happy, sad, overwhelmed, discouraged, disappointed, frustrated and so on. I’ll take the whole, human you. You know, the more deeply you feel, the more human you become.”

“If parents change their approach to conflict, the kids will do the same,” says Vikki Stark, a family therapist and author of My Sister, Myself (McGraw-Hill Companies; $15.95).

The following are common sibling problems, along with expert advice on what you can do to help your opposing players come together as a team:

My children are constantly squabbling and name-calling. If they’re not fighting over who sits where in the car, they’re arguing over who gets to use the Xbox 360 first.

Parents have to lay down ground rules about how family members should treat one another, Faber says. And they must communicate what their expectations are, clearly and often. Otherwise, kids will behave as lawlessly as is allowed. Talk with your kids about what’s going on and how you expect their behavior to change.

You can say that while you can’t demand that they act like they love one another, you do require civility. There is such a thing as kindness without closeness. It’s a lesson that will go a long way in the outside world.

Emphasize that abuse of any kind won’t be tolerated. Pinpoint key conflicts and ask the kids to suggest guidelines – and the consequences for not following them. For example, you all might agree that commandeering the gamer control from a sibling automatically loses the bully an hour of playing time.

“Whatever you try, though, don’t do any of the things that pull them apart, like locking them into roles as the “good” one or the “smart” one or by showing favoritism,” says Faber.

My daughter gripes that her kid sisters get to have things – like a later bedtime – that she never did. But my younger girls are more mature because their big sister blazed the way. Do we need to hold back on our younger girls on principle?

Treating kids equally is usually not possible says Ginott. What matters is that kids perceive that they are being treated fairly. Acknowledge your older daughter’s feelings, then speak candidly about why you’ve made the decisions you have, giving her a vote of confidence at the same time (“You handled these privileges so well, which is why we thought your sisters could handle them sooner”). Then ask if there’s anything she wants. “She might request a 12 p.m. curfew and you’ll need to go over why that may not be a great idea,” says Faber. Regardless, the point is that you treat her as an individual.

There are five years between my two sons who are 10 and 5. The younger one tries to keep up with the older one, and the older one gets annoyed.

Little brother is desperate for the older’s attention, says Stark. And little brother is trying to establish an identity within the family so he’s aligning himself with someone who already has one. Bringing the two of them together to acknowledge their feelings is a good idea, Stark says. But it’s also important for the 5-year-old to have plenty of playdates with children his own age so that he can be secure with who he is without feeling like he has to keep up with an older child.

Sheryl Bennoit is a freelance writer.

settling sibling matters

  • Use “break time.” Send each child to separate areas of the room or the house. When they’ve cooled down, have them come back together to work things out.
  • Try role playing or role reversal. Have bickering children switch roles to help them see what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes.
  • Remove the source of the conflict and distraction. If a particular item seems to be the cause of the conflict, remove it for a period of time.
  • Help children understand that their actions bring consequences.
  • Be clear in setting rules and limits. Instead of barking out commands, tell your children plainly and in terms they can understand what you expect of them.
  • Teach them the importance of consideration among siblings.
  • Avoid labeling and comparing. It’s harmful to give children labels such as clown, klutz, the athlete, the slob, the smart one, airhead, the anxious one, the fun one or the crazy one. Labels also can cause jealousy, which leads to contention. Instead of comparing, praise each child for his unique abilities.
  • Shield younger siblings from no-win situations. Younger children often want to compete with older siblings, which can be very disappointing when they keep losing.
  • Ask older children to help. You can help siblings develop a bond by having an older child teach the younger child new things. But don’t require an older child to always let a younger sibling participate in his games or hang out with his friends. Make sure the older child gets some privacy.
  • Set a good example for your children. Your children are watching how you handle disagreements and arguments with your spouse and your friends and extended family. They look to your example for how to work out their own problems.

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