Parenting Solutions: Dealing With Sibling Rivalry and Quarrels

When siblings learn how to resolve conflicts at a young age, they grow up to regard each other not only as brothers and sisters but as the closest of lifelong friends.

“I am the father of two children, ages 10 and 13. Although they are both basically good youngsters, at home they are constantly arguing and bickering with each other. Is there anything I can do to help them get along?”

“As the mother of a son and a daughter who are just about one year apart, I feel like I spend half my life disciplining one or the other. Is there a better way of handing these sibling issues?”

These laments, expressed by a father and a mother to a counselor, convey the frustration of many parents. Even from the earliest years, siblings demonstrate a remarkable ability to bicker, banter, tease, and even torment each other.

It’s estimated that almost 80 percent of us grow up with at least one brother or sister, making sibling relationships among the most formative and important that we will ever have. In fact, Washington, D.C.-based family therapist Karen Gail Lewis declares: “Your sibling relationship is your first ‘marriage.’ It’s that important. After all, your siblings are the first peers that you live with on an intimate basis.”

Furthermore, the lessons learned in the home concerning sibling relationships can set the pattern for how we relate to other people throughout our lives. While siblings will inevitably have differences of opinion, taste, and style, their attitudes and behavior toward each other can be shaped in healthy ways. Here are some effective strategies for dealing with sibling rivalry and quarrels.

Having peace and quiet is not your only goal.

The purpose of positively managing sibling rivalry and quarrels is not only to have peace and concord in the home while children are growing up but also to lay the foundation for their future adult relationships.

Dr. Wade F. Horn, a clinical child psychologist and president of the National Fatherhood Initiative located in Gaithersburg, Md., tells why this is important.

“Siblings can provide us with support, encouragement, friendship, and camaraderie—not just as children but also as adults. Indeed, adult happiness is largely dependent upon a supportive network of extended family, the seeds for which are sowed in the day-to-day interactions of siblings during childhood.”

Let your parenting of siblings be guided and motivated by this reality: Your effort will enable children to grow up to see each other not only as brothers and sisters, but to count on each other as the closest of friends.

Consider sisters Alexandra and Caroline Paul. Alexandra is an actress who appears regularly on television while Caroline is a San Francisco firefighter and author of an acclaimed memoir, Fighting Fire. The two were always close as children, and that bond has tightened even more now that they are adults.

Alexandra explains, “I had a boyfriend who said I would never need anybody as much as a regular person does because I have my sister (Caroline), and I think he was right. I’ll always have her, even if everything else goes badly. She means everything to me.”

Be a coach, not a referee.

That advice is offered by Elizabeth Crary, author of Help! The Kids Are At It Again. “In order for children to act responsibly, they need to know what they have control over and what they do not,” she says. “By teaching kids how to solve problems, children learn how to get along together. They must be taught to say: ‘Don’t poke me. It hurts.’ Or, ‘I’m not finished playing with this.’ Become your child’s coach as opposed to his or her referee.”

Rather than simply becoming an arbitrator over children’s conduct, then, parents should give children options and help them understand the consequences.

Crary cites this type of example: Tell your 5-year-old that he can choose where he wants to color. If he stays on the floor, the baby might interfere, but if he moves to the table, the baby can’t reach him there.

“Resolving problems is easy when kids stop needing to come to you for help,” Crary says. “Instead, a child can ask his sibling directly: ‘I asked you to stop poking me and you are still doing it. What do you want?’ The other child might want him to move over or play with him. It’s important to encourage children to begin communicating in order to start the problem-solving process.”

Treat children uniquely, not just equally.

Because all children are different and have differing interests and abilities, it is important for parents to reduce potential negative rivalry by allowing each child’s interests and talents to emerge naturally. Each child must be treated and responded to as the unique individual he or she is.

“Don’t force the younger to do what the older does even when it’s easier to take them all to the same soccer field,” says Linda Dunlap, chairwoman of the psychology department at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. That is sound advice which is effective in reducing unhealthy rivalry.

Janice, a mother of five from southern California, says, “Sure, my life would be a lot simpler if I took all five to the same athletic activity after school. But the fact is two of my sons love to play roller hockey, one son is an avid baseball player, and my two daughters are into soccer.

“While after-school hours and early evenings are very hectic for me chauffeuring them to their various sports sites, the children are all happier because they are engaging in activities they have chosen and which they truly enjoy. Also, they are supportive of each other’s sports activity. They go to each other’s games as often as possible, cheering their brothers and sisters on.”

Never compare your children as a way to motivate them.

Some parents use comparison tactics like these:

  • Joey keeps his room neat and clean. Why can’t you do it?
  • Cathy is able to get all A’s and B’s on her report card, so why can’t you get your grades up?
  • Trevor always does his chores every Saturday morning. What is your problem?
  • Your brother is a natural athlete, but you seem to struggle with sports.

While it is tempting to use comparison as a tool for motivating children, the tactic usually fails and only creates resentment and more rivalry between children.

Avoid assigning rigid roles.

Child psychologists and marriage counselors caution parents against inadvertently assigning roles to children—David is the writer in the family; Isabel is the artist. Or, Jimmy is a natural athlete; Jessica is our studious one. The fact is, no child has a corner on any endeavor, so it is better to simply encourage children in all their unique pursuits and interests.

Creatively channel competition.

Siblings are naturally competitive. While unrestrained sibling rivalry can be unhealthy, competition which is shaped and channeled can teach kids how to achieve their potential.

Ski champions Phil and Steve Mahre are good examples of this principle. Each twin pushed, prodded, and challenged the other. The result was both won Olympic medals. On their way to becoming Olympic champions, they encouraged and helped each other as well, passing along tips that would help the other do his best. A recent photo of the two brothers, now retired from competitive skiing, shows them facing each other across a chessboard—still competing!

In general, avoid taking sides or assigning guilt.

This is the approach endorsed by Nancy Samalin, founder and director of Parent Guidance Workshops in New York and the author of several parenting books.

“Don’t take sides. When you take sides, you set up a new fight,” Samalin says. As a parent and counselor, she knows it takes two to pick a fight, and parents simply waste a lot of time and emotional energy trying to establish who is at fault. “You can twist yourself into a pretzel trying to figure out who’s guilty,” she says.

Of course, when an argument escalates into harsh and abusive language or becomes physical, parents do need to get involved. Samalin also advises parents to monitor sibling relationships in order to better know when to intervene.

“When there is unremitting hostility between siblings … if there are no good times at all … if there’s no loyalty, [or] if brothers and sisters never stick up for each other, I’d look at the relationship more closely.”

Finally, lighten up your parenting role by smiling and laughing a little more.

“Unfortunately, I saw parenting more as a job than as a pleasure,” recalls Samalin. “I failed to realize how much of their childish behavior and silliness was perfectly normal. Today I realize how much easier life would have been for my sons and me if I had learned to lighten up. That didn’t mean giving up appropriate limits or necessary rules, but not everything had to be so deadly serious.”

Victor Parachin is a frequent contributor to this column.

Sibling Rivalry: Resources

  • Siblings Without Rivalry, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Avon Books, 1998.
  • Help! The Kids Are at It Again, by Elizabeth Crary. Parenting Press Inc., 1997.
  • Loving Each One Best: A Caring and Practical Approach to Raising Siblings, by Nancy Samalin with Catherine Whitney. Bantam Books, 1996.
  • From One Child to Two: What to Expect, How to Cope, and How to Enjoy Your Growing Family, by Judy Dunn. Fawcett Books, 1995.
  • Beyond Sibling Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Become Cooperative, Caring, and Compassionate, by Peter Goldenthal. Henry Holt & Company, 2000.
  • Surviving Sibling Rivalry: Helping Brothers and Sisters Get Along, by Lee Canter. Lee Canter and Associates, 1993.

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