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Siblings at War in Your Home? (Declare a Ceasefire Now!)

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Siblings at War in Your Home? (Declare a Ceasefire Now!)

Sibling rivalry is normal in families with more than one child. It becomes a problem when one child bullies or dominates the other. It's also a more complex issue than it first appears. On the surface, you have two kids who are “at war”—who bicker constantly and don’t get along. There can be many reasons for this, but at the core of this rivalry is a common theme that runs through it all: the sense that one sibling is the victim of the other and somehow “less than.” And that child often believes that he gets less love from his parents than his dominant brother or sister does.

Related: Does your child use "victim thinking" to justify his inappropriate behavior?

Sibling rivalry is a difficult and sometimes painful issue for many families, but here’s the bottom line: rivalry and jealousy are a normal part of life. Your responsibility is to help your kids learn to manage the feelings that come along with it. If they don’t, these issues will get carried over into adult life. The feelings of injustice, unfairness, and victimhood that accompany sibling jealousy become even more crippling to contend with later on. By following a few simple strategies, you can work with your kids to manage sibling rivalry and broker a peace treaty in your home today.

Heres the bottom line: rivalry and jealousy are a normal part of life. Your responsibility is to help your kids learn to manage the feelings that come along with it.

The Bullying Sibling
Don't confuse bullying with normal sibling rivalry. So before I give you techniques for dealing with everyday sibling rivalry, I want to discuss kids who engage in what I call the “bully-victim” dynamic. One kid is the bully—usually the one who is older or stronger—and he picks on his other sibling constantly. Because of this aggression, the child who’s being picked on often develops antagonizing methods of getting back at the bully. Since the child being teased can’t stand up to the bully directly, he develops ways of getting revenge on his more aggressive sibling by saying things under his breath or calling him names.

If one of your children bullies his siblings and has  to be the boss and control others to the point of getting physical, it indicates  some underlying self-doubt and serious errors  in thinking. He is somehow justifying being hurtful to others in order to make  himself feel better. In these cases, you have to hold all of your kids  responsible when there is an argument, but you have to hold the bully  responsible for any aggression over and above the bickering. Give consequences to every child who was involved, but if there’s a bullying situation, you have to take a stand. And I don’t mean take sides as if you don’t love both of your kids. You have to say “There’s going to be no bullying here. There’s going to be no cursing at each other. There are serious consequences for that behavior.”

Related: Do you have an ODD or otherwise defiant child who bullies siblings?

In any kind of intervention with a child who is bullying his siblings, you have to challenge their thinking. Say to him, quite frankly, “Why is it that when you get angry you think it’s okay to hit? What, the rules don’t apply to you once you get angry?” And make it very clear: “When you’re angry, the rules still apply to you, and so do the consequences.” The bullying sibling is going to test everybody because that’s what bullies do; they try to exert their power over anybody. But as a parent, you need to challenge those thinking errors directly and give that kind of behavior firm consequences.

4 Ways to Manage Sibling Rivalry

  • Hold both kids responsible for their behavior. In many cases of sibling rivalry, both kids are almost equally responsible for the behavior. One child may start to tease the other or call the other a name, which starts a volley of teasing and name-calling. As long as you know that there’s some equity in how the behavior is being conducted and in who’s starting it, then I recommend that you hold both of your kids accountable. Set up a rule in your house that if fighting among siblings occurs, everybody goes to bed a half-an-hour early. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is, or who started it. Hold both kids accountable—after all, it takes two to tango. You can say, “You kids know the rules around here, there’s no bickering. Go to your room for ten minutes until we talk about it.”
  • Set up a “bickering table”. If bickering—the constant, petty, back-and-forth fighting among kids—is an issue in your house, I recommend that families set up what I call a “bickering table.”  You basically schedule time each night for your kids who argue constantly to sit down and bicker. So, let’s say from six to six thirty at night, your kids will have to sit there and argue. And believe me, you’ll be surprised at how quickly they’ll stop bickering, because they’ll feel silly trying to come up with things to argue about. Even if they run out of things to say, make them stay at that table for a half an hour. And let them know that if they don’t bicker during the day, they won’t have to go to the table that night. It becomes a great motivator for kids to avoid squabbling with each other.
  • Stop refereeing your kids’ fights. How do you stop getting in the middle of your kids' fights? As long as it’s not a bullying situation, don’t play referee. Don’t become the judge of who’s right or wrong. And don’t try to decide who the worst antagonist is. Instead, you can say, “There’s no fighting in the house, and these are the consequences for your behavior. You two kids have to learn to walk away from each other. And if you’re not willing to do that, then you’re both going to be held responsible for the consequences.” As far as consequences go, utilize video games, electronics, cell phones—anything that’s important to your kids. And tell them that they’re going to lose time. I always advise parents to have structured free time at night or after school. When your kids get their free time at the end of homework, they get to choose what they’d like to do. That’s time when they get to watch TV, play video games, do instant messaging, or talk on the cell phone. And if they fight, they lose some of that time. You can say to all of the involved parties, “You’ve lost half an hour of your free time because you don’t know how to get along and stop arguing all the time. You can read, you can hang out, but you can’t use any of your electronics.”
  • De-fuse jealousy. If one of your children is envious of his sibling, I recommend that you try to downplay it. Don’t make it a big deal. I think you ought to say something like, “Well, you know, that’s natural, we all feel jealous sometimes. Ryan may have done well in soccer, but I watched you do your math homework and get it all done the other night, and I know it was hard.” Always point out your children’s good characteristics. Mention concrete things you saw and heard them do, and let them know that you’re valuing their efforts as much as their brother or sister’s.

Related: How to be a more effective parent.

Often, if a child acts jealous and feels  as if he’s a victim, parents tend to give him more attention, whether he's the sibling who does the teasing or the one who gets teased more often. But I don’t think it's a good idea to shine a light on it, because  what you’re doing is rewarding that sense of victimhood. Instead, try to praise all your children  equally. When they get compliments from you, what they really experience is  your affection. It’s called “hypodermic affection” and it’s an effective way to  build up your child’s confidence by giving a lot of little compliments to him  all the time. And the more hypodermic affection kids get, the less jealous they  tend to be, because they feel like they’re being recognized and their needs are  being met.

Remember to talk about how siblings are supposed to treat each other. There should be an overarching philosophy that starts with, “We’re a family, we have to help each other, we have to support each other.” Parents also need to model that behavior by acting supportively towards each other. Talk to your kids about what friendship means, and focus on having your kids help each other out. Work to enforce the sense of, “We have to take care of each other, we’re a family here.”

Ideally, a family is supposed to be a safe place where everyone is loved and everyone is equal. Your children may feel jealous of each other, but again, jealousy is a normal human feeling; it’s a perception. Normal sibling rivalry and jealousy will not be taken away by anything you, as a parent, can do. But what you can do is make sure that there’s enough love, nurturance and positive regard to go around for everybody, while at the same time, setting limits on the amount of chaos that ensues from this bickering behavior.

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About James Lehman, MSW

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

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