Sibling rivalry is alive and well in family therapist Michelle Lunka’s house in Buckeye, Ariz. Twins Madelyn and Logan are members of linked Scouts BSA troops — one led by Lunka, the other by her husband, Chris. So, Scouting gives her twins yet another way to compare, contrast and occasionally complain about their lives.
But if Lunka knows sibling rivalry, she also knows something else: The real problem is not the other sibling; it’s each child’s need to be seen, heard and valued.
“I think what we see a lot of times in sibling rivalry is this competition to get my needs met,” she says.
That competition doesn’t just happen with twins, of course, says Jami Growney, an occupational therapist in Leawood, Kan. In fact, age differences can exacerbate the problem since older kids typically have different rights and responsibilities.
So how can parents deal with sibling rivalry? Lunka and Growney oer some suggestions.
“With most of the families I work with, I really encourage what we call one-on-one connect time,” Lunka says. “It’s literally just 10 minutes a day with your child one on one where there’s no teaching, questioning, lecturing and all of that.”
Instead, you spend that time building with Legos, listening to their music or hearing how their day went.
At first, giving dedicated time could actually make the rivalry worse, but that problem should subside over time.
“If you’re consistent, the other siblings will know they’re going to get their time,” she says.
Teach in the Moment
“Because I said so” isn’t one of Growney’s favorite phrases, and it certainly doesn’t make a child feel seen, heard or valued. When one child complains that another has gotten preferential treatment, she recommends turning that complaint into a teachable moment.
She gives the example of a younger child being evicted from his prime seat in the SUV.
“Many parents may say, ‘Dude, move it to the back; you’re little,’” she says. “That just stripped him of his power, didn’t give him an explanation, and left him angry and jealous that the other sibling is taking his spot.”
It’s far better to explain that the older child needs more leg room, will be getting out first for soccer practice or earned that privilege by doing his chores.
Get a Clue
“I think all of our behaviors are about a need that is not being met in the moment,” Lunka says.
The challenge with kids is to figure out just what that need is, which is why she thinks parents sometimes have to put on their detective hat.
Often, the need involves food, especially when kids eat school lunch at 10 a.m. and then don’t have dinner until 6.
“I always joke that Snickers has made millions of dollars off this ‘hangry’ idea,” she says. But she also knows that “hangry” is very real.
When should you get outside help to deal with your kids’ sibling rivalry?
“If it’s changing your relationships, if you’re changing your routines and not feeling successful, I think that’s a great time to reach out,” Growney says.