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Mark Hutten, M.A.
Re: Sibling Rivalry

My kids have trouble getting along. How can I help them?

No matter how hard you try to keep the peace, your kids are likely to fight over toys, tattle on one another, and tease
and criticize each other. Sibling rivalry is a natural part of growing up.

Why Siblings Get Along the Way They Do—

Many things affect relationships between brothers and sisters. Some of these are:

1. Age. Kids of different ages behave differently. For example, younger kids may fight in more physical ways. As they
get older, their fighting may be more like arguments.

2. Family size, spacing, and birth order. No two kids view the family the same way. An only youngster's experience is
different from that of a youngster in a larger family. Kids who are less than 2 years apart sometimes have more conflict
than kids who are spaced further apart.

3. Gender. Gender affects relationships as well. Many moms and dads find that kids of the same sex compete with
each other more than do opposite-sex kids.

4. Personality. Moms and dads often wonder how kids from the same moms and dads growing up in the same home
can be so different. In fact, siblings are sometimes more different than alike. Even if siblings are alike in some ways, it
is important for moms and dads to recognize the unique personality of each of their kids.
Here are some tips on managing conflict between your
kids:

1. As much as possible, stay out of your kid's
arguments. While you may have to help younger kids
find ways to settle their differences, do not take sides.
If your kids try to involve you, explain that they need to
figure out how to get along. Of course, you must get
involved if the situation gets violent. Make sure your kids
know that such behavior is not allowed. If there is any
reason to suspect that your kids may become violent,
watch them closely when they are together. Preventing
violence is always better than punishing after the fact,
which often makes the rivalry worse. Praise your kids
when they solve their arguments, and reward good
behavior.
2. Be fair. If you must get involved in your kid's arguments, listen to all sides of the story. Also, give kids privileges that
are right for their ages and try to be consistent. If you allowed one youngster to stay up until 9:00 pm at 10 years of
age, the other should have the same bedtime when he is 10.

3. Don't dismiss or suppress your kid's resentment or angry feelings. Contrary to what many people think, anger is not
something we should try to avoid at all costs. It's an entirely normal part of being human, and it's certainly normal for
siblings to get furious with one another. They need the adults in their lives to assure them that mothers and fathers get
angry, too, but have learned control and that angry feelings do not give license to behave in cruel and dangerous
ways. This is the time to sit down, acknowledge the anger ("I know you hate David right now but you cannot hit him with
a stick") and talk it through.

4. Don't make comparisons. ("I don't understand it. When John was her age, he could already tie his shoes.") Each
youngster feels he is unique and rightly so-he is unique, and he resents being evaluated only in relation to someone
else. Instead of comparison, each youngster in the family should be given his own goals and levels of expectation that
relate only to him.
5. Family meetings can be a great way to work out sibling
issues. Some moms and dads find that sharing some of their
own experiences about growing up can help too. Just listening
to your kids can also help. Remember, this is their opportunity
to learn about the give-and-take of human relationships.

6. Remember that each youngster's needs are different. Some
moms and dads feel it's important to treat their kids the same
way. Yet kids often complain that things are "not fair" and that
they are not receiving what the other sibling gets. Treating your
kids differently doesn't mean you are playing favorites. It's a
way of showing that you appreciate how special they are.

7. Respect your youngster's privacy. If it is necessary to punish
or scold, do it with the youngster alone in a quiet, private place.
Do not embarrass your youngster by scolding him in front of the
others.
8. Try to avoid situations that promote guilt in siblings. First we must teach kids that feelings and actions are not
synonymous. It may be normal to want to hit the baby on the head, but parents must stop a youngster from doing it. The
guilt that follows doing something mean is a lot worse than the guilt of merely feeling mean. So, parental intervention must
be quick and decisive.

9. When possible, let brothers and sisters settle their own differences. Sounds good but it can be terribly unfair in practice.
Parents have to judge when it is time to step in and mediate, especially in a contest of unequals in terms of strength and
eloquence (no fair hitting below the belt literally or figuratively). Some long-lasting grudges among grown siblings have
resulted when their minority rights were not protected.

10. While it's natural to notice differences between your kids, try not to comment on these in front of them. It is easy for a
youngster to think that he is not as good or as loved as his sibling when you compare them. Remember, each youngster is
special. Let each one know that.

11. Whenever possible, don't get involved. Step in only if there's a danger of physical harm. If you always intervene, you
risk creating other problems. The children may start expecting your help and wait for you to come to the rescue rather than
learning to work out the problems on their own. There's also the risk that you — inadvertently — make it appear to one
child that another is always being "protected," which could foster even more resentment. By the same token, rescued
children may feel that they can get away with more because they're always being "saved" by a parent. If you're concerned
by the language used or name-calling, it's appropriate to "coach" children through what they're feeling by using appropriate
words. This is different from intervening or stepping in and separating the children. Even then, encourage them to resolve
the crisis themselves. If you do step in, try to resolve problems with your children, not for them.

12. When getting involved, here are some steps to consider:

•   Don't put too much focus on figuring out which child is to blame. It takes two to fight — anyone who is involved is partly
responsible.
•   Next, try to set up a "win-win" situation so that each child gains something. When they both want the same toy, perhaps
there's a game they could play together instead.
•   Separate children until they're calm. Sometimes it's best just to give them space for a little while and not immediately
rehash the conflict. Otherwise, the fight can escalate again. If you want to make this a learning experience, wait until the
emotions have died down.