to Deal with Sibling Rivalry
by Anthony Kane, MD.
are many new issues facing parents today. Sibling rivalry is not
one of them. It is as old as Cain and Abel.
rivalry is universal, but more importantly sibling rivalry is normal.
More than that current research shows that sibling rivalry is a
sign of a healthy family. One of the sign of a dysfunctional home
or a home where there is a lot of stress is that there is no sibling
rivalry. In these homes the children tend to cling together for
if sibling rivalry is universal and it is found in normal homes,
it must serve a purpose.
Benefits of Sibling Rivalry
One of the main benefits that sibling rivalry teaches children is
conflict resolution. Life is full of conflict. As adults we have
developed skills to resolve these conflicts in an effective and
civil manner. How did we develop these skills? We learned this by
pounding our little brother. We learned this by fighting with our
can learn certain skills by arguing with your parents, but it is
not the same. Through your parents you learn how to deal with authority.
But siblings are peers. Learning how to relate to them properly
prepares us to relate to our friends and our spouses. You can only
learn conflict resolution when there is conflict. Sibling rivalry
provides a safe and supervised haven for children to learn how to
resolve their disagreements with others.
second important lesson that we learn through sibling rivalry is
that the world is not fair. This is a very important and bitter
lesson to learn. There is always some who will do better than you.
There is always someone who is richer, who is smarter, who has better
behaved children, who has a happier marriage. Life is full of inequities.
We may not like it but most of us have come to terms with these
inequities. Where did we learn to accept that everything is not
always distributed evenly? We learned it from our siblings.
to Manage Sibling Rivalry
Now that we have a framework for what children accomplish through
sibling rivalry, we can understand better how we as parents can
use our childrens relationships with each other to help them
grow into healthy normal adults.
to Oversee the Conflict Resolution
Since the purpose of sibling rivalry is to learn how to resolve
conflicts with others, you should as much as possible let your children
work out disputes themselves. You should direct them when necessary,
but the idea is to give them as little direction as possible.
You Should Do
Create a situation where the motivation is to resolve their differences.
There are times they cant work it out- so you coach them give
them ideas how to compromise but the best thing is to have them
resolve it themselves.
example, say they are fighting over a toy. One child says he had
it first. The other says he didnt get to play with it at all
yesterday and now its his turn.
is right? That is impossible to say. So what could you do? Tell
them you dont know who is right about the toy, but if they
are fighting about it they are both wrong. Then take it away from
them and tell them that when they work out a way of sharing it they
can have it back. You will be surprised how fast most children will
be able to work out something.
You Should Not Do
Do not try to figure out who started it. In most cases you will
never resolve this. More than that, any attempt to figure out who
is the aggressor almost always makes things worse.
both children are at fault. Fighting with someone else is wrong.
Once there is a fight they are automatically both wrong. What caused
the fight becomes secondary.
to Watch Out For
Your job as a parent is not to solve your childrens problems,
but to teach them how to solve them themselves. They must learn
to make compromises. As much as possible they should be the ones
who work out the compromise. However, there are some things you
should watch for to be sure they are doing a good job.
Sure Compromise is Reasonable
You dont want to let one child bully the other into submission.
You have to make sure there is no coercion.
on Alert for the Child Who is too Good
Some children avoid conflict by nature. They would rather give in
and be the good one than get what they were originally
after. If one of your children is like this you have to be on guard.
giving in is not acceptable. It is not good for the child who gives
in because it trains him to be a target to be easily exploited.
It is not good for the other child because it teaches him to take
advantage of the good nature of others. You must make sure that
each child gets something out of the compromise.
An Impulsive or Inflexible Child
Some children have specific problems, like being impulsive or inflexible.
This may require you to intervene more often. Still whenever possible
it is better to let the children resolve their conflicts themselves.
In most cases, when you make your children responsible for solving
their own problems, they will be very quick to work out a solution.
The teen years are a special topic by itself and clearly not enough
has been written on it. However, I am going to address only a few
Your Teen Fights with Your Seven Year Old
are two very common reasons an older child will fight with a much
younger child. The first is he feels the younger child is an imposition.
We as parents use our older children to help us with the younger
ones. This is good for both children. Yet at times the older child
can feel that he is being forced into a parental role that he is
not quite ready to fill. When this happens the child will begin
to resent the burden of the younger sibling and this will result
common cause is that teens are very possessive of what is theirs.
Your average six year old may not understand this. He might take
be used to playing with his nine year old brothers things, but when
he takes the same liberties with what he finds on his teenage sisters
shelf get quite a different response. Teens have a need for privacy
and boundaries around what is their own. This need is normal and
is part of the developmental stage that they are in. When a younger
child transgresses those boundaries fights will ensue.
Your Children Equitably
As I mentioned earlier, one of the things that sibling rivalry teaches
is that things in life are not always fair. We have to keep this
in mind when relating to our children.
Not Get Hung Up on Making Things Fair
Life is not fair. You probably know this by now. Your children need
to learn this, too.
does not mean you want to intentionally discriminate between your
children. However, you should not knock yourself out trying to treat
each child equally, for two reasons:
children will not learn the important lesson that life is not
You are doomed to fail. All you will accomplish is to frustrate
cant make things fair. Nor can you give to each child equally.
Your relationship with each child is unique. This does not mean
that you dont love your children, but each one has a special
type of relationship with you that is uniquely his. You should make
an effort to be sure that the discrepancies are not extreme. You
should be sure to give to each child what he or she needs. However,
you are not being a bad parent by not treating to each of your children
equally. That is life.
You Cant Minimize the Differences
Not all children are equally easy to raise. Some children need a
disproportionate amount of your time and attention and resources.
This is a reality. You will not be able to spread yourself out evenly.
There is nothing you can do about this.
you have a child that needs an exorbitant amount of attention, for
example if the child is chronically ill, then you should discuss
this with the other children. Explain to them that their brother
or sister is ill and needs a lot of attention right now. You might
even try to get them involved in helping the sick child.
Sibling rivalry is one of the least discussed topics in child raising.
Yet sibling rivalry is part of every family when there is more than
one child. Not only that, but also sibling rivalry plays an important
part in molding each child. How a person acts as an adult is in
a large part a result of his relationships with his siblings.
job as a parent is to educate your child to be able to function
as an adult. You should use how your children relate to each other
as a tool so that they can learn to relate to others in the future.
Anthony Kane, MD is a physician, an international lecturer, and
director of special education. He is the author of a book, numerous
articles, and a number of online programs dealing with ADHD treatment
child behavior and discipline (http://addadhdadvances.com/child-behavior.html),
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