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.
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.
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."
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:
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.
"Siblings at War in Your Home" is reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents magazine. James Lehman is a behavioral therapist and the creator of The Total Transformation Program for parents. This program offers practical, real world solutions for the most challenging problems parents face: defiance, disrespect, back talk, lying, cursing, lack of motivation, acting out in school and more. In this step-by-step program you'll learn the techniques James has used in his private practice to help children take responsibility for their behavior and help parents get back in control of their homes.