• Conversations with Dr. Donna

    Order in the Court: The Case of Sibling Rivalries

    Dr. Donna Housman       

    Do you ever feel like you’re more of a judge or a football referee than a parent? Are you always breaking up disputes over stolen toys and consoling at least one child in tears? Sibling rivalry is a common parenting concern worth addressing. Before your kids bring down the house, here are a few helpful suggestions you can store in your parenting playbook on how to keep the peace.

    Let’s be honest. There are so many reasons why brothers and sisters fight (possessiveness, seniority, jealousy, annoyance, and even love). The issues are aplenty, and the list of problems varies for different families. But no matter the issue, a top parenting suggestion is to teach children how to use their words, listen to other’s words, and respect the needs of others. For example, if Adam has special treasures or favorite toys that he does not necessarily want to share with Sarah, parents can accommodate that need and build a higher shelf that only Adam can reach. While sharing is important for siblings to understand and incorporate, not everything has to be shared since it is equally important to respect the unique and distinct needs of your children.

    As your children grow and develop, you’ll notice that your oldest will obviously start knowing more than your younger child based on having the most experiences. During hectic episodes and discrepancies on the learning curve between the two, you can empower your oldest and say, “Adam, Sarah does not know how to use her words yet. You can be a good older brother and help her learn by giving her the words to use.” This way, when your younger child is screaming & crying, your older child will understand that his little sister needs more help expressing herself and she needs to find those words during intense situations with her sibling.

    One strategy is to instill a sense of responsibility, competence, and pride in your oldest child. Try this. Hold up 2 pictures of your children. Ask your oldest to list a few differences between him and his sibling (Sarah rides in a carriage, while Adam rides a tricycle; Sarah drinks from the bottle, and Adam drinks out of a Spiderman cup; Sarah is in diapers, and Adam is in big boy underpants). This process and conversation will highlight the developmental stages of your children—their strengths and areas left to learn. Just remember that you don’t want to put the older child in a parental/superior role; your child may be older than his sibling, but he’s still a child with needs that are different but nevertheless important.

    Children are always in the learning stages of life; they cannot automatically discern between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. So do not assume that they know everything (i.e. what’s right), especially when they’re doing something wrong. Instruct your children that blocks are used to build towers, not to throw them at your older brother and that destructive behaviors and hurtful words cause sadness. A consistent alternative to reinforce is to use our words or gestures (kiss or hug) to express our feelings and communicate our needs.

    In common fits of jealousy and cries for attention, it’s important for parents to remember that each of your children needs quality ‘alone time’ with you. For example, during bedtime, if you put your younger child to bed before your oldest, explain with a positive yet accurate twist that because you’re older, Adam, you get to stay up longer and do much more with mommy and daddy. It’s critical for your children to understand that they both make up your entire world, but that they are both different from each other and they need different things. I love this quote—“A parent’s love is whole no matter how many times divided.”

    As the parent of more than one child, you have both the challenge and opportunity to provide the experiences that help teach through example ways that children can connect and communicate all kinds of feelings with their siblings. When children have the freedom to express their feelings in appropriate ways, then they are able to resolve & move forward & experience the joy & love of being a brother or a sister.

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