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Harvard Commentaries
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A Parent's Life A Parent's Life
 

Managing Sibling Rivalry


August 12, 2013

By Claire McCarthy

Boston Children's Hospital


Everybody who grew up with siblings has stories to tell. Most of them are good; I remember hours spent with my younger sister collecting shells at the beach, making dollhouses out of cardboard boxes, or playing together with the other kids on our street.

But like everyone with siblings, I have plenty of not-so-great memories, such as her taking and breaking my things (despite my father's valiant efforts, the doll china just wasn't the same all glued together), wishing she'd leave me alone, or bitter fights over who got to sit in the corner of the couch. As a parent, you can't stop the conflict — but you can lessen it, and help your children reap the benefits of having siblings.

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The Value of Siblings

Many if not most of those difficult moments come from what we call "sibling rivalry" — competing for attention or other limited family resources, whether they be a spot on the couch, the keys to the car or just some privacy. As a pediatrician and a mother raising five children, I know how difficult those moments can be; sometimes I feel like I have so much mediation experience that running the United Nations would be easy.

It's important to remember, especially on those rainy days when there's no getting away from each other and the fighting seems nonstop, that having a brother or sister (or a bunch, in my family's case), can teach a child:

  • Social skills and empathy. In one study of about 20,000 kindergarteners, teachers noted these qualities more in children who had siblings than in those who didn't.

 

  • How to share. When a child has brothers and/or sisters, sharing has to be part of the daily routine — so they get more practice than those who don't have siblings.

 

  • Conflict resolution. With siblings, there's generally enough conflict that children get plenty of practice with this, too.

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How To Head Off Conflict

  1. Make each child feel valued. Make sure you give some undivided attention to each child each day, even if it's brief. This can be a challenge for three reasons:
    • There's only so much time in a day, and some kids eat up more time than others. My toddler, for example, often takes up the bulk of my parenting time and energy—and the self-sufficiency of my teenagers sometimes means I barely interact with them.

     

    • Let's be honest — some kids are easier to value than others. The hardworking, polite A student is more likely to get positive attention than the troublemaking slacker. But both are your children, and both need to know that you love them. There's always something to praise and appreciate, if you look hard enough.

     

    • Your child decides what makes him feel valued, not you. Sometimes a parent will say, "I don't know why Johnny thinks we pay more attention to Jimmy. I went to Johnny's soccer game this weekend!" But maybe Johnny wanted you to go to his school play instead, or resented that you talked with other parents on the sidelines — as I often do — instead of giving him your full attention. It takes time and communication to figure out what each child wants and needs.

     

  2. Set ground rules about how people are treated in your family — and enforce them. Make it clear that no matter how angry or frustrated someone gets, there should be no meanness or hitting, and personal property should be respected. Family members should be treated better than people outside the family, not worse. (It amazes me how this basic concept can elude reasonable, smart parents.) Have clear consequences for treating anyone badly.
  3. Don't take sides. You come into the living room and see one child screaming at the other. So you discipline the screaming child, only to find out later that the non-screaming one did something outrageously mean that provoked the screaming in the first place. You can't always know the whole story; just as importantly, your children won't learn those important conflict resolution skills if you always jump in. There are, however, caveats:
    • Watch for bullying. Some kids are more skilled at getting what they want — and some kids have trouble being assertive when they should. If you see or suspect one child always winning out over the other, you may need to jump in, both to support the less assertive child — and to teach the more assertive child some better interpersonal skills.

     

    • Acknowledge feelings. Just because you aren't taking a side doesn't mean you don't care that they are upset. You just want them to settle it themselves. Give them a chance to express their feelings to you afterward (and snuggle as needed).

     

  4. Set up rules and/or schedules to help with things kids fight about. Sit down and talk about what division or schedule of chores makes sense and feels fair. Make a list or calendar so that it's completely clear who is setting the table or walking the dog. The same goes for figuring out who gets to sit in the coveted seat in the car or pick the movie for movie night. If you take turns in a predictable way, there will be less conflict.
  5. Encourage good behavior. Give lots of positive reinforcement for any nice interactions you see, even if they are small. Help children think of alternatives to fighting, such as role-playing with you to practice. Model good behavior with your children, as well as with your spouse or partner. Remember that kids pay far more attention to what parents do than what they say.

It's hard work — as all the important stuff in parenthood is — but it's worth it. As the shouting starts and the stuffed animals fly, remember that you are not only giving your children skills that will help them now, but you are helping them build relationships that will sustain and support them throughout their lives.

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Claire McCarthy, M.D. is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.

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