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Stop Sibling Rivalry

Of all the memories of childhood, few endure through the years like the recollections of a brother and sister who was tormented relentlessly by their siblings. Most of the time this is harmless fun, and sooner or later the younger oppressed sibling catches up with the older sibling’s height-marks on the garage wall and is able to respond with everything from a rapier wit to a take-down on the living room carpet. At that point it usually only takes one devastating crying fit or black eye to put the bullying of the past to rest, but not always. Once in a while the sibling rivalry thing gets out of hand, and parents find themselves confounded and ill-equipped to help, unsure if they are to blame or how to even begin to mediate.

Sibling rivalry is nothing more than the acting out of a cry for attention and-or a declaration of independence. When it takes the form of a productive push for excellence that doesn’t come out of the skin of the other sibling, this is actually a good thing, provided the other sibling is not made to feel inadequate or the parents begin to dote on their little superstar to the exclusion of the other. But more often the threatened child acts out in a manner that is at the expense of the sibling, and this is where parents need to pay attention and flash their referee’s whistle. Because too much sibling rivalry can cause lifetime scars and an asterisk on the memories of childhood. The good news is that sibling rivalry is normal, and it usually works itself out over the years, often in a way that brings the siblings into close relationship for life. But parents need to watch closely, because there are ways to intervene to ensure that this is indeed the outcome.

Parents can actually be the cause of sibling rivalry by giving one child more attention than the other, or at least more positive feedback and approval. The denied child will feel deprived and look for ways to capture their parent’s attention, not always in a good way, and often at the expense of the golden child in the next room. Sibling rivalry can be environment-driven – homes that are full of conflict and loud disagreement are more likely to foster aggressive behaviors in children that manifest toward siblings, since they are unable to challenge the parents who are modeling this behavior.

The adoption of certain parenting principles may not completely defuse sibling rivalry – again, it is a normal part of child development – but they can help manage it. The most obvious and effective strategy is to make sure you never show favoritism for one child over the other, even if one is deserving of more praise. Allow your children to be who they are, never compare them or hold one up over the other as a role model. Make sure each child gets alone-time with parents, during which they are the center of attention and are allowed to express their feelings. Make sure there are plenty of family activities that the siblings share equally. The degree to which you can foster a team environment in the family is the degree to which your children will become teammates instead of adversaries. And finally, take care in conflict resolution, especially when one child is habitually the perpetrator and the other a victim. Take discipline behind closed doors, never humiliate one child in the presence of the other, and try to avoid the blame-game in favor of developing conflict resolution skills.

Nobody said parenting would be easy, and there’s nothing more challenging than a house full of kids hurling the china at each other. But with a consistent environment of equal attention and love, and when discipline and learning is meted out fairly and strategically, the natural maturation progress of each child will unfold as it’s supposed to, an evolution from competition and tattle-tailing to a fierce allegiance between brothers and sisters that lasts a lifetime.

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