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Parenting Coach Katie Malinski role plays with Kate Raidt how to avoid fighting during play dates.

Do you sometimes feel like your job as a parent is really the job of a referee? Do your siblings fight…all the time? Parenting Coach Katie Malinski LCSW role plays with Kate Raidt how to handle your children when they don’t get along.

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson and Parenting Coach Katie Malinski LCSW discuss with Kate Raidt the difference between normal sibling squabbles – and when sibling fighting or rivalry has gone too far.

Do your kids argue All The Time?  Do you feel like you are a referee?  While sibling squabbles can be normal, there are definitely things that parents can do to make them happen less frequently, empower the kids to resolve them, and help siblings grow into having great relationships with each other.

  1. Teach your kids how to play together.  Your older child especially will benefit from your instruction on how to play with the younger.  For example, “Hold this blanket over your face and then drop it down quickly and say Peekaboo and smile.”The baby will love that and will giggle!”  When you find yourself repeating a list of “Don’t,” try to switch over to a happy encouragement of “Do.”  In addition to being more effective, it’s being more enjoyable for everybody, too.
  2. Teach both kids to notice, understand, and respect other’s non-verbal signals.  A simple one is to watch the other person’s smile—big smile: things are probably going well.  No smile?  Maybe take a break.  Another example: a 1 year old, who when she gets too worked up, will grab her sister’s hair—ouch!  Teach the big sister to recognize the signs of an over-stimulated baby so she can take a break and save her hair.
  3. Pay attention to the messages that your children are getting from TV, books, and friends.  The bulk of kids’ media portray siblings as annoying, or bothersome, or mean, or worse.  It is rare to see loving sibling relationships—but kids need to see this way of relating to their sibling if they are going to actually do it, and they need your help identifying and rejecting the negative images of sibling relationships.

So point out crummy behavior when you see it on TV or in books… talk about your family values on how brothers and sisters treat each other… show your kids how to play with each other well and how to understand other’s signals, and most importantly: give your kids some extra love and support when they are loving to each other.  These things will really help!

Ah, that vision of serene family life! Bluebirds twittering, everyone smiling, the children sharing everything equally…. Not! Siblings and rivalry go together like chips and salsa: it’s hard to have one without the other. But there are some things parents can do to manage the rivalry that naturally occurs. Let’s talk about some strategies every parent can use.

But first, let’s define our terms. “Sibling rivalry” is not the same as “sibling bickering.” Driving my grandkids around last weekend, I had a front-row seat for some backseat bickering. You know what I mean: “he’s on my side”; “stop touching me”; “don’t say what I say”; “I wanted that!” This is not rivalry, folks. It’s just button-pushing and a way to relieve some boredom. You stop it by saying, “Stop that!”

Sibling rivalry is bigger and deeper. It describes feelings of competition and struggle that develop over time and become part of the family dynamic. Just as in sports rivalries, rivalry between siblings can become toxic and lead children to undermining each other’s successes, gloating over each other’s failures, and feeling anxious and defeated at least half of the time.  You don’t want that. But just as in sports leagues, friendly rivalry between siblings is natural and normal. The trick, in families and in sports, lies in keeping rivalry friendly and not letting it get out of hand.

Rivalry is natural and normal because there never is enough to go around. There always is one last cookie (who gets it?). Sometimes Mom is talking to you (which means she’s not talking to your brother). Only one kid gets to sit beside Dad at the ball game (is it your sister?). So there is competition. There is struggle. And, generally speaking, it all evens out. Sometimes it’s you who gets the goodie. Sometimes it’s your sib.

The problem comes if things don’t even out. Sibling rivalry becomes destructive when parents (or grandparents) favor one child over another. Holding up one child as a model for the others to follow: not a good idea. Admiring one child’s talent for music over another child’s talent for … well, what is that child good at? Also not a good idea. Trying to compensate one child for some problem or deficiency in his life by giving him more of what all your children want: a sure way to make that child resented by his brothers and sisters. At any one moment, things in every family are unequal. But over time (and not over a long time, but over a span of time your children can grasp), things must equal out. Things must seem equal to your kids.

So this is the key to managing sibling rivalry. Avoid playing favorites among your children (and watch out, because it’s easy to play favorites without even knowing it). Don’t let grandparents or aunts and uncles play favorites either. Downplay kids’ competitiveness and avoid stoking the fires of competition, as you do when you compare one child to another. And make certain, when your children bicker, that you don’t weigh in to take sides.

Friendly rivalry is natural and normal. Rivalry that looks like sniper warfare is not. What can you do if the snipers are already firing?

First, recognize that you created this. Children are not born hating each other. So it’s up to you to uncreate it.  Pay attention to your own feelings and actions and notice when you make comparisons or when you favor one child over another.  What do you do in managing your children that has encouraged this rivalry to develop? Are you modeling bad behavior  – in your interactions with your kids or with the kids’ other parent – that your children are simply mimicking?

Once you have figured out the source of your children’s feelings of inequality and unpleasant behavior, you’ll have to make a serious effort to change how things happen in your household. This includes changing the ways everyone in the family treats everyone else. It includes not holding grudges against each other, and not waiting for a chance to “get back” at someone. It includes saying nice things to each other, every single day.

You are the grown-up. Model what you want to see. Let your children know what you want to see in them. Tell them when they’re getting closer to that ideal.

A lot depends on the ages of the children and a host of other factors; if the rivalry seems really problematic, you might find consulting a parenting specialist is a good idea. But your children will be siblings for life. Helping them to build strong bonds with each other is a wonderful gift. Start now.

It’s true that over half the American presidents and a majority of Nobel prize winners were first-born children. This might make you think that there’s something special about the juju that makes up that first embryo and that the raw material of follow-up siblings is just not so good. As a second-born child myself, I beg to differ.

What is different for first-borns is the situation into which they’re born. Just a comparison of first-born and later-born baby scrapbooks will tell you: first-borns are the center of attention and later-borns not so much. First-borns have only adults to talk to. First-borns are fussed over and worried about. Everything first-borns do involves some major decision. It’s hard not to think you’re special with all that special attention. From first word to first day at school to first day of college, first-borns are the center of their parents’ world.

Later-borns benefit from the experience their parents gained while practicing on Kid #1. They often live in a more relaxed world and have their older sibling to break the ground for them and show them how to manage the tasks of childhood and adolescence. So it’s no wonder that later-borns tend to be not quite so driven and not quite so anxious for success as their older brother or sister is.

The first child in the family enjoys the undivided attention of his parents. No matter what other distractions his parents might have, this kid gets all the attention his parents can spare. The key in raising Child #2 and #3 is to pay a similar amount of attention.

Later-born siblings have smaller vocabularies, on average, than first-borns. Since the number of words a person knows is related to his ability to grasp concepts, vocabulary is a key item. One thing you can do to support the development of your second and third children is to talk with them. It’s easy to let the older child speak for all the kids—he is, after all, older and more articulate than his younger brother and sister. And in the hectic environment of most households, and especially households with several children, it’s hard to find time for the explanations and discussions you had with Child #1. But talking with all your children, and listening to what each one has to say, is one of the ways you can give all your kids the advantages the first kid had.

A second suggestion is to remember that all children in the family are unique and not duplicates of each other. Sometimes parents promote a ”family brand,” like “We’re the Jacksons and we all sing and play music.”  Take time to find out the interests of your younger children, just as you did for your first-born child, and don’t assume that he’s a clone of his older sibling.

Having siblings adds to the richness of family life, especially if everyone can shine. With every new child in the family, life gets more complex and it’s hard to fit everything, and everyone, in. But treating every child like a first born is a good goal to have.

We all want to be number one.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson.  All rights reserved.