Sibling Rivalry: How parents can make it better or make it worse!

How parents (and others) can make it better or make it worse!

Others can be relatives, teachers, religious leaders, coaches and neighbors, etc.

Rivalry is healthy.

It is normal and natural for siblings to compete with each other. The competition prepares them for the world at large. Healthy individuals are able to compete with others and attain what they want and need. Living in a family and learning how to compete is valuable and productive.  Competing, per se, is not a problem. How family members compete with each other is the key factor.  It’s the style of competition that is healthy or unhealthy. Children learn about competition in the family in several ways. Mostly importantly, how each parent models competition in his or her own life has a big impact on children. Whether or not parents compete with each other and, if so, how they do that, impacts upon their children. How parents handle competition influences how their children will handle it. Children may engage in competition in the same way as their parents, or differently. If it is not fun, they may opt out of competition altogether.

Sibling rivalry is about competing for parental resources.

The first-born never has to compete with a sibling(s) for parental resources; they just have them. When the second child is born he or she begins life competing for parental resources while the first-born has to start competing. The first two children in any family are the most different whether there are two or ten children. The reason for this is because they need different ways to compete for parental resources.  The more children there are in a family the fewer parental resources for each of the children. Children can get more parental resources by being unique, such as gifted, talented, handicapped, troubled, etc.  Children who are unable to compete tend to get lost in the family and feel like they don’t matter.

Parents can promote healthy competition by:

  • Modeling competing in healthy way.
  • Modeling losing in healthy ways.
  • Helping their children compete productively and effectively with each other.
  • Not taking sides between siblings.
  • Expressing confidence that their children can work out their differences.
  • Having clear fair rules/boundaries that they follow through on consistently.
  • Comforting and consoling their children when they lose.
  • Discouraging their children from disparaging and making fun of each other.

Have Fun:

Parents model effective competition when they have fun playing a game with each other.They demonstrate the game is about fun, entertainment and spending time with each other – not winning or losing. Children delight in watching and experiencing their parents enjoying each other. Or, the competition is about improving skills, such as in sports, sewing, carpentry, games (cards/video/board) – not winning or losing.

  • Avoid competing with each other. Rather than compete with each other parents can demonstrate productively and effectively how to support each other without competition. They can demonstrate being proud and a ‘cheerleader’ for each other in their pursuits and achievements.  They do not put each other down.

Let go of the need to win:

Parents model effective competition when they let go of the need to win and focus on having fun and spending time together. Children are most motivated and learn best when everyone is having fun.

  • Avoid competing with your children. Some parents feel inadequate when their children do better.  Some parents, jealous of their own children’s achievements, may unconsciously send them the message ‘If you do well, I suffer.” This can be very detrimental to their children’s development.

Have your own life:

Parents model effective competition when they compete productively in adult activities – when they have their own lives that are separate from the children.

  • Avoid competing vicariously through your children. Some parents view their children as extensions of themselves and become overly invested in one or all of their children’s achievements. Their world revolves around their children’s lives. The children then become vehicles for the parents to feel OK about themselves.The children can become lost as individuals in their own right.

Focus on one child at a time:

Parents reduce rivalry when they focus on one child at a time. Talk to your child about any topic without mentioning a sibling or even a friend or schoolmate.

  • Avoid comparing your children to each other.
    For example: Finish your chores. (Do not add -your sister/brother has done theirs).
    When you do compare be specific; e.g. You are both helpful. You are helpful when you pick up your toys. Your sister is helpful when she puts her dishes in the sink.Children need their parents’ approval like a plant needs water. When parents compare their children to each other both children are harmed. The sibling who gets the approval gets it at the expense of another, not for him or herself alone. The sibling who does not get it may feel resentful and envious of their sibling. This usually leads to more fighting amongst the siblings. It also usually leads to more competition for parental approval.

Treat children with respect:

Parents reduce rivalry when they treat their children with respect. Comfort and reassure your children when they lose or fail. Focus on what was achieved. E.g. you tried really hard.  You can learn from that.  You gave it your best shot. You got one shoe on.

  • Avoid mocking, humiliating or criticizing your child when he or she loses.

Some parents, particularly fathers, believe they need to toughen their child up to prepare them for life.  But really, they do not need to do that. Children get toughen up anyway and they will be much tougher if they know they have their parents support and acceptance.

Have realistic expectations:

Parents reduce rivalry by setting realistic expectations for their children. Believe that your child is capable of taking on new challenges or tasks. E.g. you can do it. I believe in you. I know it difficult yet I know you can learn to do it.

  • Avoid demanding too high achievement in the home and in the outside world.

Minimize preferential treatment:

Parents minimize rivalry by not showing preference for one child over others. It may be impossible not to prefer one child to others; however, you can minimize the expression of your preference.

  • Avoid showing preference (verbally or non-verbally) for one child’s talent and abilities over another child’s. The parent who attends every dance recital but never a soccer game indirectly shows preference of one child to the other rather than for one activity over another. When a parent favours one child over the others for whatever reason – the child is the youngest, smallest, cutest, less intelligent, a girl or boy, sickest – siblings often feel resentment. This may result in siblings picking on the favoured sibling.Parents often over protect a child, which creates resentment in his or her siblings. It is important to protect younger children from older siblings, or weaker children from stronger siblings. The key point is not to OVER protect.

Encourage, support, and motivate each of your children:

Parents model fair behaviour when they act as cheerleaders for all their children.

  • Avoid refereeing. Children often manipulate their parents into refereeing their fights. This is often to get parents involved with them. If parents are not spending quantity or quality time with each child, they may fight with each other in order to get their parent’s involvement. It is not bad or wrong for children to do this. It is a way to get what they need from parents. If parents know this, they can remedy the problem by carving out more one on one time with each child or playing a game with all of the children. If you are going to spend time with your children it is healthier and more fun to play with them than fight with them.

As much as possible treat your children the same:

Parents minimize competition by treating all their children the same.  While every child is different and unique, parents can have basic rules and guidelines in the family that conveys to the children that each one is important and has worth.

  • Avoid punishing your child who is a bully and rescuing your child who is the victim.  You do not want to negatively reinforce one child to be a bully or the other to be the victim.  These are roles that, consciously or unconsciously, they may play out in the family and also the world outside the family.Children who bully their siblings are discouraged. They do not feel good about themselves.  When parents rescue a child from a bullying sibling and then punish the bully, both siblings are harmed.  The bully feels even more discouraged about him or herself while the rescued child may develop a victim stance.  There is a payoff for being the victim – negative power.   Out of the parents’ eyesight the victim may provoke the bully into fighting so he or she can get mom or dad to rescued him or her and punish the bully.

Above all be kind to yourself.

Parenting is difficult.  Competition is a natural in families but that does not mean it is easy to deal with, especially if you are busy, stressed or tired.

Have a realistic goal: Cut the negative competition in half.

This is do-able. Your life will be easier when you achieve this. All members of the family will benefit.

One of the best gifts you can give your children is a strong sibling bond. They will have each other for support, comfort and companionship in adulthood.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea

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