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A study reported recently in the journal Pediatrics found that there can possibly be more to sibling rivalry than a little friendly competition. It can be linked to mental health problems.

Nearly 3600 children ages birth to 17 were asked to describe incidents of aggression perpetrated on them by a sibling over the past year (parents responded in place of their children ages 9 and younger).

Researchers found that children who experienced aggression at the hands of a sibling, including physical harm, intimidation, taunting, excessive teasing, and intentional destruction of toys or other property, suffered mental distress severe enough to leave lasting emotional scars.

For these children, sibling rivalry had escalated to the level of bullying. They felt unsafe in their homes.

Lead author of the study, Corinna Jenkins Tucker, concedes that “siblings are going to fight.” What was different for some of the siblings in her study was the level of animosity and seriousness of the conflict. Jenkins Tucker notes that sibling victims were much more likely than other children to be anxious, depressed, or angry, even if the hostility appeared to be “not that bad” or “only being mean, not actually hurting anyone.”

Parents come to expect sibling rivalry as a normal part of family life. But parents should be aware of what is going on between their children. They should take seriously a child’s complaints about his brother or sister and note if the rivalry has escalated into something more. Parents should definitely intervene to protect a child from being bullied at home.

What can you do if your children seriously don’t get along? What can you do if you believe one child’s treatment her brother or sister is harmful? According to Jenkins Tucker, kids can be taught to fight fair:

1. Take time to teach children how to see another person’s point of view.

2. Teach children how to negotiate a solution, instead of needing to win.

3. Model good behavior yourself: avoid shaming, sarcasm, name-calling, and hitting. Avoid using threats and extortion to control children’s behavior.

4. Model good conflict resolution skills. Remember that a child who bullies others often was bullied himself.

Being the target of a bully doesn’t make a child stronger or tougher. It only makes him sad, scared and angry.

All your children deserve to feel safe at home.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

This week my granddaughters from Illinois visited my home and I had a chance to observe young sisters in action. The girls are four and six years old, which exactly matched that ages of siblings in a new study of children’s learning. Like kids in the study, my granddaughters shared information, helped each other learn new things, and acted as a learning-teaching team. See if your children do the same.

In the study, researchers sat in on 39 Canadian families for six 90-minute sessions, as children in the family interacted naturally. The kids weren’t given any sort of learning-teaching task, but simply did what kids do together. Like my granddaughters, the children in each family were ages four and six.

What the researchers saw was a whole lot of learning – far more than the lead scientist Nina Howe expected. She said she was surprised not only by how much teaching occurred of one child to another but also on the sorts of learning that was shared. Children not only taught each other how to do things, like how to make a block tower stable, but also concepts like the difference between a circle and a square or how to tell apart the days of the week.

Researchers also noticed that the teaching-learning process moved in both directions. Often the older sibling explained things to the younger child but sometimes the younger sibling did the teaching. There was a lot of sharing of knowledge and developing knowledge together.

Howe suggests that parents can capitalize on children’s willingness to learn from each other by making sure kids have lots of unstructured playtime. She says, “Give them the time and space to interact together, and have things in the home to promote teaching and learning, both toys and opportunities for kids to be together.”

Learning doesn’t always come from adults. Often learning is easier when the teacher is nearly the same age as the learner and can understand the learner’s point of view.

When kids are playing together, don’t interrupt or step in to do the teaching. It matters less that children get the right answer than that they consider the problem and come up with what seems right to them at the time.

Let your children play and figure things out. Listen in, if you like, but let the learning happen on its own.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.