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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.

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.