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Sibling Rivalry: A Survival Guide for Parents

Sibling rivalryWhen parents decide to have more than one child, it usually involves a fantasy about a perfect relationship between siblings. You know, those cozy family nights gathered around the table, sharing an amusing game of Clue or Monopoly, everyone vying for attention in a competitive-yet-convivial Brady Bunch way.

The reality will probably be more like this: Mom's on a conference call, Dad's on his BlackBerry, Emily's crying because Adam hid Colonel Mustard, Adam's crying because Emily punched him, and the baby's crying just because. Can't everyone just get along?

From Cain and Abel to Mary Kate and Ashley, siblings are natural rivals. Yet for some reason, the sibling rivalry between their own kids still takes parents by surprise.

"You would think, having been young siblings ourselves once, that we would all have known what to expect," say authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish in their book, Siblings Without Rivalry. Yet, the authors found that most parents in a parent-guidance group they participated in were unprepared for the antagonism between their children.

Sibling squabbles

"Children compete for limited resources in the home," says Cathy Harrison, Sibshop coordinator at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle. Sibshops offer programs and activities for siblings of children with special needs. "Those resources include a parent's love, time, attention and approval."

It's normal for kids to want the most important people in their lives -- their parents -- to focus attention exclusively on them, says Deborah Woolley, a Ballard area psychotherapist and parent educator at North Seattle Community College. "They resent any intruders."

Very young children lack the developmental skills they need to control their innate impulses, Woolley says. That's why you'll sometimes see a 2-year-old offer baby brother an un-brotherly smack. "Kids are in an egocentric phase until at least age 4 or 5," she says. "They have a lack of empathy and awareness that this brother or sister is another person with feelings. And they have a very limited capacity for restraint."

As Mercer Island parent educator Barbara Swenson explains, the older child "didn't sign on" to have child number two. "Each child wants to be best -- and wants the parents to love them the most." Overall, it is very important to prepare older siblings for a younger sibling's birth and to make sure that the older sibling understands that he or she is very loved and not being replaced in any way.

Often, Mom and Dad expect more of the older child. After all, big brother or sister sets the example -- and should know not to tease and not to grab toys, and how to share nicely.

Presumptions like those can sign, seal and deliver years of sibling rivalry and dissonance, say child development experts. "When parents punish only the oldest child, that child thinks, 'of course they must love the other one best,'" Swenson says. "To think the oldest child won't fight or engage in conflict is very unrealistic."

And although few will admit it, sometimes parents really do have favorites -- a huge factor in sibling rivalries. "Even when parents say, 'I love them both the same,' what matters is what the child feels," says Seattle author and clinical psychologist Laura Kastner, Ph.D. And if one child feels Mom prefers the other, "the kid will resent the sibling," she says.

Child development specialists say that favoritism might evolve from birth order, a child's temperament or interests, or a particular developmental stage. The favorite could be the child who's most -- or least -- like the parent.

Colleen Holbrook, an Edmonds clinical social worker, grew up in a family of 13 children. "My mother favored the boys. She kept dinner for the boys if they were late, but not for the girls. It created a lot of resentment,"Holbrook remembers. "When I was growing up, I wanted to be a boy."

There's no easy way to prevent family problems when favoritism's in the picture, but self-awareness helps, Holbrook says. "Parents should try to notice where their biases are," she says. "Do they bond more with one personality than another? Do they make an effort with the child they don't have as much in common with? Do they spend equal time with both kids?"

As Faber and Mazlish point out in their book, "If we want to stop showing favoritism, we first have to be aware that we feel it. Knowing our bias puts us in a better position to protect our 'less favored' children."

It's not fair!

You probably think you treat all your children equally. To that, the experts would say, Get Real. "It's a myth," Kastner says. "Parents never raise both kids the same. Even twins."

The truth is, children would rather be treated as special than equal, according to Elizabeth Crary, a Seattle-based author of over 60 books and articles for parents and children. "If one person has music lessons, everyone doesn't have to," Crary says. "The more you try to be exactly equal, the more any deviation from that is seen as hurtful."

Go for consideration and respect and forget "equal," she says. Focus on a child's unique abilities, talents and personality. And don't fall victim to the "it's not fair" defense.

Kathy Miller, an Issaquah mother of four, claims her kids beg for things on every shopping trip to Target. "But sometimes just one of them needs something," Miller says. "Then I'll say to the others, 'It's not always going to be even. And maybe the last time, you got something and no one else did.'"

What if one sibling is more high maintenance than the other? Let's say he's high-strung or feisty or just plain hard to manage. A kid like that's sure to dominate the family spotlight, even if all the attention he's getting is negative. There'll be plenty of time-outs and scowls and lost privileges.

"What you end up with is a good kid and a bad kid," Kastner notes. "The difficult child will feel disliked relative to his sibling and the good child won't be able to make waves because there's already so much negativity going on in the house."

While there's no easy fix for this kind of quagmire, Kastner suggests parents pay more attention to the "difficult" child. "Go out of your way to have love-in times and special dates with him," Kastner says. "Catch him when he's behaving -- and be positive. And ignore the low-grade, less important stuff. Benign neglect is good."

Tips for dealing with sibling rivalryDon't label or compare siblings

Ever heard yourself saying this?

"She's our athlete."

"He's our scholar."

"She's our artist."

The experts call this "labeling." And they'd like us to drop it from our parenting repertoire. Once you label a child, Woolley says, you often ignore other abilities and interests that are not consistent with the label. Talents, traits and untapped potential don't get developed.

"If Colin learns to throw a ball earlier than Robin did, but Robin shows an interest in music, Colin becomes labeled as the 'sports' sibling and Robin as the 'musical' one," Woolley writes in her article, A Sibling's Bill of Rights. "Then we may not take Robin out to kick around a soccer ball...or sign Colin up for piano lessons."

While it's natural to compare children, labeling and comparing builds resentment and a possibly the beginning of a sibling rivalry. "Why can't you do your homework like your brother?" "Look how well your sister cleaned her room."

Let's face it -- no one likes being held up to someone else's standards, particularly a sibling's. "Parents can make serious mistakes comparing kids," says Seattle author and child development expert Susan Fox. "Embrace your child's individuality and uniqueness. Don't correct them in a comparative way."

Teaching siblings how to resolve conflicts

It is completely normal for siblings to have a natural rivalry. Siblings clash, even if their parents have consulted the brainiest experts, even if they've read the most enlightening books. "It's a normal part of family life," Harrison says. "When you live with people, they get on your nerves. And your worst behavior comes out in your own home."

In fact, Swenson says, a complete absence of fighting among siblings can be a red flag. "Usually that means one child is giving in all the time -- and that's not good. It teaches one child to dominate, the other to be a victim."

Teach your children how to resolve conflicts and quarrels -- preferably when they're not already in one, Harrison says. "Intervene during calm moments. Ask them, 'what can we do when there's a fight? What are the rules when he takes your toy?' Let them help come up with rules and consequences."

Validate their feelings, she says. "You might say, 'you seem really angry. You're frustrated your truck is broken. I'd be unhappy too.' But then let them know it's not OK to hit, punch or kick."

Also teach them strategies. "If a child knows they can have multiple solutions, they'll look for them," Crary says. If one child grabs the other's toy, for example, each could take turns playing with it, find a second toy or agree to play together.

"We always encourage our children to talk out their differences," says Jayne Eastman, a Federal Way mother of two. "We say, use your words and if you can't resolve it, come to one of us."

Don't act as judge and jury; chances are, you weren't there to witness the conflict. "My sister would get me in trouble and my parents blamed me because I was supposed to be the 'responsible' one," Fox says. "It built a lifetime of resentment."

Practice non-intervention. "Most of the time I say to my kids, you have to work it out yourselves. They learn to figure out what to do," Kathy Miller says.

Ignore as much dissention as possible, Kastner advises. Don't reinforce bad behavior by rewarding it with attention. "The kids will learn to work out their conflicts, especially if there's coaching and guidance along the way," she notes.

But never ignore abusive or bullying behavior. "Always intervene when it gets close to blood and humiliation," Kastner says. "If a child is injured, you move in. When the older brother calls the younger sister 'fatso,' you move in."

The upsides to sibling rivalry

Turns out there are upsides to sibling rivalry: We gain a myriad of life skills while fighting for the remote control, wrestling for the last chocolate chip cookie, and of course, vying for our parents' love and attention. It's enough to almost make you pity the only children who miss out on the never-ending taunting, teasing, bickering and wallops dependably provided by brothers and sisters.

"What you hope is that children learn all the lessons gained in the laboratory of the living room," Swenson says. Lessons such as how to argue and find workable solutions. How to make choices and how to share. How to stand up for yourself and how to forgive. "Siblings learn more than conflict management," Kastner says. "They build skills in frustration, tolerance, good coping, self-control and emotion management."

Siblings also give each other a greater sense of security in the world, says Woolley, who notes that research has shown infants tolerate separation from their parents more easily when a sibling is in the room. "That continues throughout their life," she adds.

And it's those lifetime connections that parents covet for their children. Tanisha Felder, a Seattle mother of two pre-teenage boys, has high hopes that her kids will one day become best friends. "I'd like them to be each other's support," she says.

Kathy Miller wants her children to feel they'll always have each other. "It's a bond you don't get from friends," she says. Jayne Eastman's goals are more modest. Following a week apart, her two kids were about to be reunited. "Maybe they'll treat each other nicely," she says hopefully. "At least for a few days."

Linda Morgan, contributing editor, writes frequently on education and other issues for ParentMap and other Seattle-area publications.

9 tips for enhancing sibling relationships

1. Get down on the floor and play with both (or all) siblings together at least some time each day.

2. As you play, you can model social skills: turn-taking, cooperation, waiting, showing interest in the other's play, etc.

3. Talk to each, separately, about how much the other enjoys them and looks forward to being together.

4. Teach the older siblings games/activities that will entertain the younger sibs, and reinforce (verbally, with praise and descriptive commenting, and nonverbally, with smiles and interest) the older sib for playing with the younger.

5. Talk with the older sibling about child development (in age appropriate language) to help him/her have patience with the younger sibling's behavior.

6. Have play materials on hand that invite "open-ended" activity and can be used by siblings in different ways according to their developmental level and interests.

7. Sit down as a family and look at photos of the siblings together so they can see the history of their relationship and see your pleasure and delight in their interactions.

8. Don't compare them to each other.

9. Don't "type" or "label" them -- either verbally or mentally.

Want more on sibling rivalry? Read more here, and check out this cool Sibling Bill of Rights by local parent educator Deborah Woolley.

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