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Sibling Rivalry Can Be Tricky — But Here's How Experts Suggest Keeping It to a Minimum

07/18/2021 06:00AM | 2241 views

Sibling relationships are one of the earliest and most long-lasting relationships we have — but just try to explain that to a 7-year-old and a 5-year-old both intent on playing with the same thing at the same time.

While these types of family fights are headaches for parents, studies show that sibling rivalry can actually be beneficial, teaching kids skills such as negotiating, compromising and resolving conflicts.

Sibling relationships are one of the earliest and most long-lasting relationships we have — but just try to explain that to a 7-year-old and a 5-year-old both intent on playing with the same thing at the same time.

While these types of family fights are headaches for parents, studies show that sibling rivalry can actually be beneficial, teaching kids skills such as negotiating, compromising and resolving conflicts.

That doesn't mean sibling squabbles are only beneficial. The same study notes, "If sibling rivalry continues into adulthood, there will be risks to financial competition, relationships and care, where the competition can replace competition to get parental attention that occurs early in life."

So, how can parents ensure they get the benefits of early conflict resolution, but preserve their children's relationships — all while maintaining a harmonious household? (Ha!) There are some things that parents can do to manage sibling rivalry.

The main causes of sibling rivalry are about what kids see as fairness.

Your kids strive for equal treatment. "Three things are typically at the root of most sibling rivalry: kids feeling they’re getting unequal amounts of attention, degrees of responsiveness and severity of discipline," says Donna Housman, Ed.D., founder and CEO of the Housman Institute. If they feel like one child is being singled out for special attention, or if their punishments are harsher than their brother or sister's, expect conflicts to arise.

But while kids expect to get their fair share, they don't want to be treated as carbon copies of each other, either. "All children want to feel special and unique, and while they’re developing their sense of individuality, they want to be recognized by their parents as not just interchangeable siblings," Dr. Housman adds. "Most siblings experience some degree of jealousy or competition. How parents handle this reality is the key to how deep and long the rivalry runs."

There is no magic age gap that decreases sibling rivalry — and no specific age when it disappears.

You may have heard parents offer the "conventional wisdom" that kids born too close together will be extra competitive with each other, or that kids born too far apart will be subject to the wrath of an oldest who is too used to being an only child.

While they may sound reasonable, these bits of wisdom aren't backed up by studies. Instead, every family has its own equilibrium caused by the makeup of personalities of everyone in it, so there's no blanket rule. "Siblings who are close in age can be playmates and buddies, or bitter enemies, and often alternate those roles," says Perri Klass, M.D., F.A.A.P., co-author of Quirky Kids: Understanding and Supporting Your Child With Developmental Differences. "And children who are spread further apart may have a little more distance, but there can also be resentments."

It's often the case that these rivalries dissipate with time. "Generally, by the time of adulthood, sibling relationships shift closer to friendships," says Allyson Holmes-Knight, Ph.D., clinical director at Daybreak Health. "Each child has been able to develop a unique relationship with each parent and they are able to appreciate their own and others’ individualism."

But if left unaddressed, as the study notes above, resentments can carry through to adulthood. "The ways that parents interact with each other, their individual children, their collective children and their own siblings will determine how sibling rivalry is created and maintained or addressed and dismantled," says LaNail R. Plummer, Ed.D., L.C.P.C., CEO of Onyx Therapy Group and assistant professor-lecturer at Johns Hopkins University. "Since our adult relationships are often a reflection of our childhood relationships, it is imperative that sibling rivalry is immediately addressed by parents, along with tools and expectations for healthy interactions among the siblings and the entire family."

To cut down on sibling rivalry, avoid comparisons between children.

It creates needless competition and makes them feel less unique. "Don’t use labels when talking about your children, either," Dr. Holmes-Knight says. "Parents will refer to their children as 'the athletic one,' or 'the smart one.' These labels can create separation between siblings." Even if you're not so explicitly comparing them with labels, you might be fostering comparisons by constantly praising one child or criticizing one child more than the others, or clearly paying more attention to one child’s needs and interests.

Instead of pitting them against each other, try to foster empathy. "Encourage your kids to put themselves in one another’s shoes," Dr. Housman says. "Say, 'Remember when Sara wouldn’t let you use her paints? How did that make you feel?'” Praising your kids to each other helps, too. That way, you can get the kids all working on the same team.

Carve out one-on-one time for each child, along with family time.

Taking one kid at a time on a solo outing gives them the benefit of your undivided time and attention, and tailoring the activity to their interests demonstrates that you value their uniqueness. "I think this is a particularly important topic in families where one child requires extra attention because of any kind of disability or special need," says Eileen Costello, M.D., F.A.A.P., the other Quirky Kids co-author. "Typically developing children can be aware of this, resent the sibling and then feel guilty for the resentment, creating all kinds of complex feelings. When one child has those special needs parents need to find a way to give the other child a chance to be the focus of the parent's attention.”

Giving them their own space — an area they don't have to share with their siblings — often helps, too. "Setting up their own special place, be it a shelf or cubby to help keep safe and preserve their special things, shows you honor their separateness," Housman adds.

And in addition to one-on-one time, create moments where the family can all enjoy an activity together, be it a puzzle, a family game or an outing. "When parents are able to create time and space for their children equally, it helps reinforce that there is room for everyone in the family," Holmes-Knight says. "It's also really important to provide them with opportunities to make positive memories together and form a healthy bond with one another."

Focus on healthy conflict resolution.

"Knowing when to intervene is a tricky calculus for parents," Dr. Costello notes. Ideally, you want to raise kids who can learn how to deal with conflict on their own. In practice, it's much harder.

First, as a family you have to set up bumpers for what behaviors are never acceptable, such as bullying or hitting. Those can result in immediate consequences.

For lesser squabbles, parental involvement can be harder to figure out. It helps to understand the kids' triggers. "By understanding what leads to the arguments, parents can intervene before it escalates," Dr. Holmes-Knight says. "If playing sports is an activity that frequently leads to fights, then parents can closely monitor their children playing and deescalate the situation before it gets out of hand."

If tensions rise and you have to intervene, parents should stay neutral, avoid choosing sides and find consequences are applied to all equally. ("If you can't take turns with that game, I'm going to put it away and no one can use it.")

When things hit a boiling point, Dr. Plummer offers this five-part strategy for healthy conflict resolution.

  1. Set the tone. "Say, 'We are family and we will learn to get along, support each other and address our feelings.'"
  2. Allow for calm (aka, separate the kids). "Say, 'This conflict will be addressed. Right now, I want each of you to go to different rooms and take three deep breaths. I will come and check in with you in five minutes.'"
  3. Check in. "Reinforce that you know how they feel, and that you understand conflict feels uncomfortable and hard. You just need to talk it out as a family."
  4. Bring the kids together. "Remind them that you love and support both of them. Then start the problem solving process." Ask one kid to describe the problem, say how they feel and offer two suggestions are for solving it. Do the same with the next child, and the next. Repeat what you've heard from the kids, then have the family decide between some of the possible solutions.
  5. Praise them for their efforts. Say something encouraging like, "Sometimes it's tough to talk about our feelings and create solutions but you all did it. You are great. You are amazing. I love you all."

After some practice, your kids will be on their way to understanding how to resolve issues — between themselves and out in the wider world — setting them up for better relationships down the road.

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