Sibling rivalry is the jealously, competition and fighting between brothers and sisters. It usually begins when the second child is born and lasts through childhood. If you see this starting to take shape in your home, do not play favorites. Children can tell if one child is favored over the other. Treating them equally can be very difficult especially if you notice one child is wrong and the other is usually right, but it is very important to always maintain equality.
To increase the likelihood of equality choose activities that will be fun for all of the children. If the children have fun together, it will help them to remember their bond when conflict occurs. Also make sure each child gets activities that are just for them and age appropriate. For example, give the older child some time to play with his/her toys without the younger child around and give the younger child some attention while playing a game that he/she can enjoy.
It is also helpful to teach older siblings to be patient to the younger siblings by explaining, “they are not as smart as you are” or “they are not as fast as you are.” This will not only help them better understand their siblings, but also feel good knowing they are the “big” girl or boy in the home. Studies show that children feel good when they are kind to others so encourage older siblings to teach the younger ones and make sure to praise big brother or sister when they take the time and effort to do this.
Teaching siblings how to fight will be very helpful in creating a strong relationship. Parents need to lay down the law and say, “in my home you can fight, you can get angry and you can express your feelings, but you cannot physically or emotionally hurt your siblings.” Then model the right communication patterns for a fight and for your home. Teach the children the way to approach each other positively instead of forcefully stepping in. For example, “Josie, why don’t you ask Marie if you can play Barbies with her?” Make some toys or an area in the house “special” and just for the older child and make some other toys and an area “special” just for the younger child. Say to the younger child, “When Marie is in her special area, please do not bother her. When she comes out, she will be ready to play with you.”
It is also helpful if parents do not make comparison statements to the children about the other child. For example, do not say “See, Josie ate everything on her plate. Why can’t you?” Instead say, “Let’s both finish our lunch together and then we will get a treat when we are done.” When the children are following the rules, try to come up with systems to hand out privileges in a fair way. For example, “Marie, you can choose the book before nap and Josie, you can choose the book before bedtime.”
Strong sibling relationships can be one of the greatest gifts that you can give to your children. It is up to the parents to help foster the bond and make sure that siblings treat each other with respect and kindness inside and outside of the home. It can be hard, time consuming and stressful to always monitor siblings and make sure they are treating each other properly. However, the rewards of giving the time and energy really pay off as the fighting will decrease and will cause less stress and emotional pain for children in the long run.
Children can feel devastated being physically and emotionally taunted or hurt by brothers and sisters at home, especially if there are having problems at school. Being a kid is tough as there are education and social pressures and obstacles and it is essential for children to know home is safe and home is where I feel supported. If they do not feel supported and safe at home eventually they will start looking for other options to make them feel good. Home is supposed to be the one safe place.
By simply putting communication and resolution rules in place and making sure to follow through with them, children will learn the importance of caring properly for their family members.
Tammy Gold, LCSW, MSW, CEC, is author of Secrets of the Nanny Whisperer: A Practical Guide for Finding and Achieving the Gold Standard of Care for Your Child (Perigee, January 6, 2015). Founder of Gold Parent Coaching, which specializes in parent coaching, therapy, nanny-family matching, training and mediation, she has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and People, and is a frequent guest on TV's Good Morning America and Today.
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