Sibling rivalry is normal, but you can help kids level playing field

Our relationship with our siblings prepares us for all of our future relationships, but watching kids develop those relationship skills can be so infuriating.

Kids can go from being mortal enemies to best buddies in no time flat, leaving their parents scratching their heads. Lauren Gaspar, a licensed clinical social worker at Good Mourning Counseling Center, thinks of siblings as your war buddies. “You will always look at each other and know exactly your experience because you both grew up in your home. They are part of the journal of your life, they are witness to your life,” she says. “There’s that inherent bond-sharing experience.”

Friday happens to be National Siblings Day. (Bet you didn’t know there was a day for that.) I’m not sure how we’re supposed to celebrate this or what the gift-giving protocol is for National Siblings Day, but we should honor what life skills siblings teach us.

“We have siblings before we have friends,” Gaspar says.

That tug-of-war of the early years is important, normal and to be expected, Gaspar says. Kids are learning how to work through conflicts.

Fighting especially gets amped up in siblings that are close in age and the same sex, but oddly enough, kids who are twins or multiples seem to fight less, she says.

When parents see that their children aren’t getting along, they shouldn’t panic and have a knee-jerk reaction to solve the problem. This is an opportunity for children to deal with conflict and work through it.

Parents should intervene when there is physical violence or if it feels like one kid is consistently bullying the other. If there appear to be real anger issues, it’s important to look at what else might be going on at home or at school. It could be that it’s not really about the sibling at all.

If it feels more like typical fighting, you can help them work through conflict by setting some ground rules:

No using aggression or physical contact to solve a problem.

No using hurtful words or sarcasm.

No letting one kid always give in or one kid always “win.”

Use your inside voices.

Establish a cooling-off period when things are heating up.

Parents also need to look at how they talk and act with friends, co-workers and each other. If you’re using sarcasm, don’t be surprised when that comes out in how kids fight with one another. If you use hurtful expressions like “you’re being a drama queen” or “quit being a baby,” your children will name-call, too.

One big thing kids like to fight about is fairness and whether a parent is being fair or favoring one child over another.

Dr. Jane Ripperger-Suhler, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Texas Child Study Center, suggests that parents should check in with themselves to make sure there isn’t some truth to the “you’re not fair” charge. Does one child seem to get all of the positive attention while the other gets only the negative attention?

Some of that can be the personality of the child and how a parent responds to that personality, and some might also be about the age difference of children.

If you try to establish a practice in which everyone always gets the same thing, it becomes unrealistic. Ripperger-Suhler suggests establishing some special time with each child that feels unique to that child’s interests rather than trying to be completely equal.

Siblings teach us the important lessons that everything is not always equal and that there are disappointments. Kids need to be able to work through another person getting praised or another person getting something that they wanted.

“Even in sports, everyone doesn’t get a trophy anymore,” Ripperger-Suhler says.

However, creating a formal routine or plan can help lessen squabbles about fairness. Establish a chore chart for the deeds no one wants to do but everyone has to do. Use a similar chart for rewards like TV time, video game play and iPad usage. That way, each child knows when her turn is.

If kids really like to fight about simple things like who gets to pick what we’re eating tonight, you can establish a rotation: Odd numbered days it’s one kid’s choice, even it’s another’s; or, if you have more than two kids, a different day of the week can be assigned to each kid. Make it easy to remember so no one can fight about what the system is supposed to be.

And if kids are fighting, fighting, fighting, try pairing them together more. Have them be a team in a family game or sit together at an event. Encourage them to keep working together, even if it is just to agree how embarrassing their parents truly are. That will last a lifetime.

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