How to Deal with Sibling Rivalry
How to Deal with Sibling Rivalry
by Anthony Kane, MD
There are many new issues facing parents today. Sibling rivalry is not one of them. It is as old as Cain and Abel.
Sibling 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 security.
So if sibling rivalry is universal and it is found in normal homes, it must serve a purpose.
The 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 big sister.
You 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.
The 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.
How 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 children's relationships with each other to help them grow into healthy normal adults.
How 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.
What You Should Do
Create a situation where the motivation is to resolve their differences. There are times they can't work it out- s you coach them give them ideas how to compromise but the best thing is to have them resolve it themselves.
For example, say they are fighting over a toy. One child says he had it first. The other says he didn't get to play with it at all yesterday and now it's his turn.
Who is right? That is impossible to say. So what could you do? Tell them you don't 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.
What 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.
Usually 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.
What to Watch Out For
Your job as a parent is not to solve your children's 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.
Make Sure Compromise is Reasonable
You don't want to let one child bully the other into submission. You have to make sure there is no coercion.
Be 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.
Constantly 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 points here.
When Your Teen Fights with Your Seven Year Old
There 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 in fighting.
A second 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 sister's 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.
Treating 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.
Do 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.
This 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:
1- Your children will not learn the important lesson that life is not always fair.
2- You are doomed to fail. All you will accomplish is to frustrate yourself.
You can't make things fair. Nor can you give to each child equally. Your relationship with each child is unique. This does not mean that you don't 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.
When You Can't 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.
If 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.
Your 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
About the Author
Anthony Kane, MD is a physician and international lecturer.
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