Reducing Squabbles Between Siblings

Most couples in American society have children because they view it as rewarding and even necessary to have a satisfying family life. While some couples are content with having one child, the majority wants to have at least two, and some still want to have a large number of children. While there have been many changes in the family over the past four decades, this desire to have children and center the family on their development and eventual launching has remained relatively unchanged.

This view of the perfect family with dual career parents living comfortably in the suburbs and having two or more children, however, may not always be so satisfying. Some families appear to have it all, but find that their children do not get along. Sibling rivalry is real and affects both children and parents. When parents mishandle the competitiveness of their children even reduced satisfaction can occur in the marital relationship.

Have you ever had a vacation ruined because the children wouldn’t stop fighting? A friend recently told me the following story about his family’s summer vacation last year. “We had barely gotten out of town when the kids started. Joe took Matt’s toy away from him and Matt pitched a fit and started yelling and screaming for his toy. Amy and I decided to stop at one of those fast food places with the play area for kids to get the pent-up energy out. After getting back on the road it seemed to work for awhile and just as we started up the Sierras, Matt and Joe got into it again. I’m not even sure what they were fighting about. Just as Amy was getting them quieted down, Joe accidentally hit the board game Mary was playing with and the whole thing started over with Joe and Mary. It was that way all the way up the mountain because I couldn’t pull over and it kind of got Amy and me in the wrong mood too.”

Bob and Amy planned their children, spacing them about two years apart. They wanted them close in age so they could be playmates. What they hadn’t counted on was the competitiveness and jealousy their children exhibited. They also didn’t think they always handled the rivalry appropriately because it seemed to erupt at times they were ill prepared for it.

Sibling rivalry is a common occurrence in families and appears fairly innocuous on the surface, but when it is on-going and leads to physical fighting; it can set the stage for serious and damaging consequences. Researchers in sibling relationships have focused on the negative aspects of sibling rivalry. Even siblings whose ages vary greatly still expressed rivalry because they resent what they think is an age related privilege. Older children may think younger ones are favored and younger children may think their older sibling has more prerogatives.

Researchers have found that competitiveness between siblings begin early, even while the younger child is still in diapers. Researchers have also found that older siblings resent the time and attention given the younger siblings and the loss of their central place in the lives of their parents, especially their mothers who are more involved with the younger sibling. Fathers can help mediate this loss of attentions by increasing their time and activity with the older child.

Researchers have found that too much or too little attention to the older child is equally problematic in reducing the competitiveness and jealousy with the younger sibling. Also same-sex siblings generally relate in a more positive manner than siblings of different genders. Children who are close in age tend to have more conflict through childhood.

The help reduce sibling rivalry, parents can do some of the following:
• Parents should recognize that rivalry is inevitable and not to overreact by punishing competitiveness or attempting to make everything equal between the siblings.
• Children should be encouraged to resolve their differences between themselves when possible. When parents remove themselves from the arena, children no longer have the audience they are competing for and the conflict decreases.
• On the other hand, parents should not allow violence, such as physical fights to erupt between siblings. Researchers have found that the most common form of physical violence in families is between siblings. Parents should intervene in physical fights to help siblings resolve differences in non-violent ways.
• Parents should themselves model ways to solve their own difference with each other in ways that use problem solving and negotiating skills.
• Parents shouldn’t compare siblings to each other. Comparing a younger child to an older sibling, for example, will only intensify jealousy and resentment.
• Don’t expect the same behavior from each child. Children are different and it is impossible to create an equal environment for both children.
• Spend some time which each child every day and focus on his/her uniqueness.
• Teach children to respect each others’ possessions, but encourage sharing.
• Keep calm when dealing with problems between children. Parents must control their own anger and reaction to their children’s rivalry. Children do not need to know that their jealousy is upsetting to you, but they do need to know appropriate guidelines for expected behavior.
• Model communicating to children in non-punitive ways. If you are prone to spank as a preferred method of discipline, look at other methods that are less punitive. Using physical methods of punishment may model the opposite of what you want – the belief that physical force gets results.
• Remember that researchers have found that children who know that they are loved and valued for their own uniqueness will work though their jealousies with their siblings and value these relationships in the long-term more than they will value friendships.

About Dr. Roberts

Dr. Roberts has worked for the past 25 years in the field of Child and Family Development. He has a PhD in Child and Family Development with an Emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy. He also has an EdS degree in Counseling and the MDiv degree in Theology. He directed the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Appalachian State University, Chaired the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Long Beach State, and chaired the Department of Child and Family Development at San Diego State University. Dr. Roberts is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Georgia and had his own practice before starting his long career in higher education. Dr. Roberts also holds the title of Elder in the United Methodist Church.
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