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Have you ever divvied up M&M’s into precise portions or bought each child new sneakers when only one really needed them? If you have done these or other similar tactics then you were attempting to ward off the monster known as sibling rivalry.


Sibling rivalry refers to the aggression and jealousy that develops between children in a family. A certain amount of rivalry between siblings is normal. As parents, we need to know this because we may unfairly blame ourselves for what is part of normal development between brothers and sisters. Younger children will demonstrate sibling rivalry by hitting, pushing, grabbing, and even biting. Older children tend to use teasing and verbal abuse toward each other. Sibling rivalry increases with age. Eight year olds will bicker and argue more than four year olds, and twelve year olds even more so. Typically sibling rivalry worsens when siblings are close in age (a year or two apart) and are older. It more often increases even further between two children of the same sex.


Sibling rivalry can be constructive when parents use it to teach their children to resolve conflicts appropriately. An important part of learning to resolve conflicts appropriately is learning to express feelings and needs without attacking the person being confronted. Much of growing up is about developing social skills. Even the most brilliant students will not be successful in adult life unless they have developed effective interpersonal skills. As parents, our job is to help our children develop the tools to listen to each other and to come up with mutually agreeable solutions. Learning these valuable life skills will serve them throughout a lifetime of relationships.


Sibling rivalry can get out of hand when it becomes excessive, harsh, and cruel. A child can suffer serious emotional abuse at the hand of her siblings. Parents must step in and take action to prevent their children from attacking the self-worth of one another. Parents must also prevent their children from physically attacking one another. Physical fighting between siblings to resolve differences must never be permitted. In order for children to develop into adults who can be their best, children must learn to fix problems involving people without violence. Allowing children to physically abuse one another, as well as physically fight with one another, is child abuse.


There are a number of steps parents can take to tame sibling rivalry. An important one is to establish certain family rules that will prevent most sibling conflicts. The following three rules should be part of every family where there are two or more children: (1) No hurting others with words or actions. (2) Leave other family members stuff alone or get permission first before borrowing anything that is not yours. (3) Respect others privacy. These rules need to be explained and then posted. Children need to be taught how to behave and how to resolve differences. Establishing rules like these and enforcing them with consequences is the first step in taming sibling rivalry.


Children develop feelings of jealousy toward their siblings because they do not want to share their parents with anyone. This comes from their strong need for their parents’ love and attention, and much of their rivalry is driven by their need to compete for their parents’ attention. To deal with the issue of jealousy we should first of all never deny or minimize it when it is expressed. If our child comes to us and says, “I feel you treat my sister better than you treat me,” we should not say to her, “That’s not true, we treat you both alike.” Telling her that will only make her feel isolated and worse off than if we did not say it. Instead, we should accept what she says. We do not have to be in agreement with her, but it is important that she know that we take her perception seriously. A helpful response would go something like this, “Tell me more about it; it is important to me that I understand how you feel.” This type of response communicates that we care about what she is experiencing and interested in making it better.


Even well intentioned parents can unknowingly fuel sibling rivalry. To help prevent feelings of jealously from developing we need to make each child feel equal. We can make them feel equal by not comparing them to each other (see chapter ten). It is also helpful not to compliment one in front of the others. Giving praise for good report card marks, for athletic successes, and the like, are better done in private away from the ear shot of other siblings. We help them to feel equal if we do not put too much emphasis on figuring out which one is to blame for their fighting. It takes two to fight—anyone who is involved is partly responsible. We also need to pay attention to how much time alone we spend with each child. They pay attention to it, so should we. Children feel they are equal when we spend equal time alone with each one. They feel they are receiving equal treatment when they sense their parents do not show favoritism.


As much as children need to feel equal they also need to feel they are special. They need to feel special in the sense of being individuals with unique needs and talents. As parents, we must remember that children are different, and that each requires different treatment for what makes them unique. But when we do address the individual needs of one child we need to balance that attention with support for our other children as well. If for example, one of our children has an illness or disability, and this child requires our attention, we should also be sensitive to our other children’s need for our love and support. Children do need to understand that at times one of their siblings will require more of their parents’ attention. Taking time to sit down and explain those needs is very helpful, but each child in the family will still need nurturing that only a parent’s love and attention can satisfy.


Each child should have some quality time alone with each parent. Time alone with a parent makes children feel special. It can be difficult for parents in the course of their busy daily schedules to find time for their children. But some attention should be given to doing this, even if it is a few quality minutes at bedtime. Weekends and holidays can provide opportunities for extended quality time. While families need to spend time together, children need to spend time alone with their parents. A child needs to have moments when her parent can be her special friend—a time not to talk about brothers and sisters, but a time to focus on her alone. If your child is too often involved in sibling conflicts increase quality time spent alone with her.


It is helpful for children to adopt a balanced attitude between being a team player and an individual. We want to teach our children to value cooperation with other family members and sharing to develop family unity. We also want them to feel respected as individuals. When we acknowledge that they have private possessions we are respecting them as individuals—boundaries foster respect. The more children feel respected by their family, the less likely they will have conflicts with their siblings. So on one hand we want to encourage our children to help and share with others without regard to making personal gain, and on the other hand we want to respect their personal needs for privacy and property.

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