by Christina DiMartino
Sibling rivalry has existed as long as families have. The topic has been the theme of fairy tales, books, cartoons, and movies. It’s a common subject in gossip tabloids and has been the motive behind crime, infidelity and other family traumas.
Although rivalry and jealousy between siblings are common, there are things parents can and should do to ease the tensions.
What and why?
In “Sibling Rivalry,” an article published by the University of Michigan Health System, Kyla Boyse, R.N., says that sibling rivalry reveals itself in jealousy, competition, and fighting between brothers and sisters.
“It is a concern for almost all parents of two or more kids,” reports Boyse. “Problems often start right after the birth of the second child. Sibling rivalry usually continues throughout childhood and can be very frustrating and stressful to parents.”
Boyse adds that it’s most likely that the relationship between your kids will eventually develop into a close one. Working things out with siblings gives your children a chance to develop important skills like cooperating and being able to see another person’s point of view.
The Child Development Institute provides information to parents based on current comprehensive and practical research. It reports that your kids may be of different gender, are probably of different ages and temperaments and, worst of all, have to share the one person or the two people they most want for themselves: their parents.
Gender makes a difference. A son may hate his sister because his father seems gentler with her. On the other hand, a daughter may wish she could go on the hunting trip with her father and brother.
Children’s positions in the family affect their relationships. The oldest child may be burdened with responsibilities for the younger children, or the younger child spends his life trying to catch up with an older sibling.
Age differences also cause siblings’ relationships to shift over time. A 5-year-old and an 8-year-old can play some games together, but when they become 10 and 13, they will probably be poles apart.
Seven tips for reducing disharmony
Educator and author Michele Borba, Ed.D., is recognized for her practical, solution-based strategies to strengthen behavior, self-esteem, character and social development in children, and to build strong families. In “Seven Ways to Reduce Sibling Jealousy,” Borba says that treating kids equally is plain unrealistic.
“Kids come packaged with different temperaments, interests and needs,” states Borba. “So don’t drive yourself too crazy trying to always make things fair. The real trick is to minimize conditions that break down sibling relationships and cause long-lasting resentment. While some rivalry is unavoidable, parents can discourage sibling disharmony by giving careful attention to how their household atmosphere is structured.” She gives these seven tips:
1. Refrain from comparing behaviors. Never compare or praise one kid’s behavior in contrast to a sibling. It can create long-lasting strains. It unfairly puts pressure on the sibling you praised and devalues your other child.
2. Listen openly to all sides. Listening fairly to your kids is a powerful way to convey that you respect each child’s thoughts and want to hear all sides.
3. Never compare schoolwork. Kids should compare their schoolwork, test scores, and report cards only to their own previous work—never to the work of their siblings or friends.
4. Avoid using negative labels. Family nicknames like Shorty, Clumsy, or Klutz can cause unfair family ribbings and fuel sibling resentment.
5. Nurture a unique strength for each sibling. All kids deserve to hear from parents what makes them special. Knowledge of that talent boosts their self-esteem as well as setting them apart from their siblings.
6. Find special alone time with each child. One way to let each child feel treasured is by spending time alone with each parent. Make a date with each sibling to have special time just with you, and mark it on the calendar. During that time, enjoy your child without having siblings around.
7. Reinforce cooperative behavior. Don’t overlook one of the simplest ways to boost sibling harmony. The moments may be few and far between, but tell them you appreciate their efforts when they help, share, cooperate, and work well together.
The positive side
In “What’s Behind Sibling Jealousy?” Dr. Benjamin Spock states that jealousy and rivalry invoke strong emotions, even in grown-ups. One person wrote to him calling the birth of a younger sibling the beginning of hatred. These feelings can be more disturbing to a very young child because he doesn’t know how to deal with them.
Dr. Spock says though jealousy can’t be completely prevented, you can do a great deal to minimize it or even to convert it into positive feelings. If your child comes to realize that there is no reason to be so fearful of a rival, it strengthens her character so that she will be better able to cope with rivalry situations later in life, at work, and at home.
Parents can help a child to transform resentful feelings into cooperativeness and genuine altruism. The stresses and strains of coping with a new sibling can be transformed into new skills in conflict resolution, cooperation, and sharing.
These are lessons that are hard-won. Learning to cope with the challenges of not being the only show in town may be the lesson that is most valuable of all to a child’s later success.
Michele Borba offers final words of advice: “Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to always make things fair in your house. Life just isn’t fair. Instead, teach kids the skills that promote harmony so they’re more likely to cooperate.”
Christina DiMartino has been a freelance and assignment writer since 1985. She is a researcher, interviewer, writer, editor, and manuscript collaborator with a repertoire of clients from around the world.