As an advisor to parent coaching, I frequently hear calls involving sibling rivalry conflicts. An important thing to remember is that sibling rivalry is a normal emotional state in children. Children compete with each other for their parent’s approval and affection. In fact, adult children still can feel competitive about their parents’ attention. One of our jobs as parents is to teach siblings how to get along with each other. After all, we want them to continue to have a successful relationship when they are adults.
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Here are some specific ways to cut down on the sibling rivalry in your household:
1. Don’t choose between your children. During sibling conflicts, parents should coach the children on how to solve the problem of getting along with each other instead of deciding who is “right” and who is “wrong.” Choosing between your children just increases the rivalry.
If a child comes to you with a complaint about another, coach them how to go back and solve the problem. For example, if one child is complaining that their sibling won’t get off the computer, suggest that they go back to their sibling and make a request instead of a demand. “I’ve got a special project due that will take about two hours. Can we figure out what time I can use the computer for this?”
Don’t decide who’s right or wrong. Remember, The Total Transformation Program tells us we do not need to attend every argument we’re invited to. That can include being asked to join an argument between the siblings. Instead, help your kids develop skills to compromise, to be fair, and to take turns. Develop family systems of how to share. Kitchen timers or odd and even numbered days can help with taking turns. And teach kids skills to calm and soothe themselves while they wait for their turn, like deep breathing, reading a book, or doing some exercise.
2. Don’t place your child in the role of “good kid” or “bad kid.” Be aware of placing your children into certain roles. Be especially careful not to have one child in the role of the “bad kid” and the other the “good kid.” No child is all bad or all good. The “bad kid” is very likely to be jealous of the parental approval the “good kid” receives. At times this gets the better of him and he attacks the child whom the parents perceive as being the “good” one. Sometimes it is an unprovoked attack, but usually it is not. Anyone involved in a conflict very likely shares some responsibility. I’ve heard parents tell of stories of the “bad kid” attacking the “good kid,” but after investigating these stories with the parent, it becomes clear that the “good kid” had something to do with setting up the “bad kid.” I received a call from a parent wanting to know an effective consequence to use on her son. She had two boys, one of whom was always causing trouble. This “bad kid” had just physically attacked his brother in the laundry room. She was only interested in consequences for this bad kid behavior. After discussing everything that occurred between the brothers in the laundry room, it turned out that they were arguing over who was to do their laundry at that moment and the “good kid” had taken the “bad kid’s” clothes from the washer and thrown them onto the floor. The “bad kid” is usually the only one who gets punished in these situations. A danger in labeling a child as the “bad kid” is that they will give up trying to do anything right because they are always blamed for any problems among the siblings. The “good kid” gets a lot of satisfaction from this and reinforcement from the parent from their “good kid” role. Sometimes the “bad kid” is the most emotionally honest of the children. That’s why it’s so important not to decide who’s right or wrong during a conflict, but to challenge your children to find a way to get along with each other.
3. Brush off the teasing or else “Stop the Show.” Another common problem among siblings is teasing. Help them deal with teasing by teaching them to ignore the teasing, to ‘kid back’ or agree with the teasing in a humorous way: When a sibling says, “You stink!” They can reply, “Why thank you. That’s what I was going for.” So again, it’s best to challenge your children to work it out between themselves, and if they cannot, require that both children Stop the Show (See The Total Transformation, Lesson 4) and take a break until they can resume interacting together in an acceptable way. If the conflict turns physical or the kids’ fighting continues to escalate, separate them until they’re calm. If you need to instruct them how to handle a situation more effectively, wait until everyone has calmed down.
4. Develop a culture of accountability in your family. I’ll hear parents say the “bad kid” is teaching the younger children how to misbehave. When the younger children act out, the “bad kid” gets blamed for that too. As James Lehman says in the Total Transformation Program, it is important to develop a “Culture of Accountability” in our families. Teach your children that they, not an older sibling, are accountable for their own behaviors.
5. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring the child who behaves well. Always having to be the “good kid” is problematic too. Watch out that the child who is behaving appropriately is not ignored. Remember that behaviors that are ignored decrease, while behaviors which receive attention increase. So pay a lot of attention to good behavior, using James Lehman’s Strategic Recognition and Affection technique (See The Total Transformation, Lesson 4).
6. As parents, Role Model how to resolve problems and disagreements in respectful and non-aggressive ways. You set the strongest example for your children. Have fun times together as a family. Try to eat dinner together without the TV on. While you’re watching a movie, playing catch or a board game, you can Role Model peaceful ways to spend time together as a family. Show them how to resolve an argument amicably, as parents.
7. Treat each child as an individual. Finally, sibling rivalry is about the competition for parental attention and approval. Reduce the competition by treating each child as a unique individual and giving each child your attention and your affection. Make sure each parent spends time with each child alone, doing something the child enjoys. Some mothers and fathers have a monthly “date” with each child individually. Remember that one of the best ways to combat sibling rivalry is to tell your child why you love them, what makes them unique in your eyes, and why they are special to you.
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Carole Banks, LCSW holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work from the University of New England. Carole has worked as a family and individual therapist for over 16 years, and is a former online parent coach for Empowering Parents. She is also the mother of three grown children and grandmother of six.