Growing Up: Helping Siblings Get Along
If you have more than one child living under your roof, chances are you’ve dealt with sibling rivalry and shrieks of "It’s not fair!" or "But he did it first!" Because eight out of 10 children in the U.S. have one or more siblings, rivalry is a daily struggle for millions of American parents. But sibling tensions don’t have to rule your home. Here are some age-by-age strategies for smoothing sibling squabbles.
Toddlers are blissfully oblivious to sibling tensions until a new baby arrives on the scene. Even a toddler who shows excitement and tenderness toward a new sibling can display a sudden, uncharacteristic jealous streak, says family therapist Josie Clark-Trippodo of Greensboro.
"Behavioral signs of jealousy could include regression, clinginess, tantrums and aggression towards the new baby, parents or pets," she says. Jealousy can be stealthy and appear seemingly out of the blue — one reason to never leave a new baby alone with a toddler sibling.
Spending extra one-on-one time with a jealous toddler can help assure him and soothe feelings of jealousy. "Allow the child to warm up to the sibling on his or her own time, and don’t force interactions," Clark-Trippodo says. For a smoother sibling bond, prep a tot by reading books together including "My New Baby" by Rachel Fuller, "I'm a Big Brother" by Joanne Cole or "There Is Going To Be a Baby" by John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury. Parents can pick out a special big brother or big sister gift from the baby to the older sibling and present the gift when the baby comes home from the hospital.
Parents of school-aged children can accidentally fuel sibling feuds by pitting siblings against one another. Saying things to motivate and reward kids like "Hey, let’s see who can finish their chores fastest," or "First person to clean her plate gets first pick of the popsicles," can backfire, says licensed counselor Debbie Pincus, creator of the The Calm Parent program. Avoid creating a competitive atmosphere with races, and instead use individual rewards to encourage positive behaviors.
"Try something like ‘When you get your room clean, I will give you some time with the iPad.’ Have them compete with themselves, rather than each other," Pincus says.
Comparisons and labels, such as "Josh gets ready so quickly in the morning, why can’t you?" or "She’s the athletic one!" can feed resentment and spark rivalry, particularly if a sibling already feels sensitive about her performance in that area. Recognize each child’s traits separately to help each child shine in his or her own right.
Bickering between teen siblings can be intense, but sibling rivalry isn’t always negative. "If parents can stay out of the middle, rivalry can be positive, helping kids learn about problem-solving, empathy and self-regulation, and helping them to recognize and strive toward qualities they admire in a brother or sister," Pincus says.
Help teen siblings learn from, instead of resent, one another’s strengths whenever possible by stepping back and allowing them to work through problems on their own. If a teen envies a sibling’s possessions, grades, social life or bank balance, ask him or her to think about the personality traits and behaviors that helped the envied sibling get what it is he or she wants, and work together to outline a few steps to help the jealous sibling achieve something similar, then step back and let the teen independently carry out the steps to promote personal growth without competition. When each sibling feels valued and heard, and nobody has to compete for a parent’s favor, kids will naturally respect their siblings, Pincus says.
Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three.