Parenting • Jul 10, 2014

A parent’s guide to sibling rivalry

When I was a school-aged girl, my Cabbage Patch Kids were my most prized possession. One night, I could not find my dolls.  The more I searched without success, the more panicked I became. The more upset I became, the more my older brother laughed.  As I was about to melt down completely, all he could manage was to point a finger at the freezer.  I opened the freezer door to find my beloved dolls with heads covered in crystals of ice.  My brother had dunked their heads in the toilet and put them in the freezer! My meltdown hit Chernobyl levels as my brother ran off to his room in order to avoid my howls of anguish and my mother’s wrath as she realized what had happened. 

Parents often tell me tales of sibling rivalry that far exceed this example.  Conflicted sibling relationships can turn a happy home into a cage match in a flash. Worse, strained relationships between siblings can have a life-long emotional impact.  Parents often feel at their wit’s end about how to manage sibling rivalry.  In their classic parenting text, Siblings Without Rivalry, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish provide excellent strategies parents can implement to help siblings avoid conflicts and develop positive relationships.  Here are a few of the tips from their book that I have found to be useful.

  •          Acknowledge negative feelings one sibling might have towards another
    • o   When a child says, “I hate my sibling,” parents are often quick to dismiss the child’s statement or rebut it with something like, “You love your sister!” Failing to acknowledge how the child feels will result in the child feeling misunderstood and resentful towards both the parent and the sibling.
    • o   Instead, Faber and Mazlish encourage parents to recognize the child’s feelings by helping the child identify the feeling (“You feel very angry!”), using a wish to recognize what the child would like to happen (“You wish your brother would leave your things alone”), or giving the child a creative outlet to express the feeling (“How would you like to draw a picture of about how angry you feel?”).
    • o   Faber and Mazlish advise that physically aggressive behavior towards a sibling should be stopped, and the child should be shown how to express those negative emotions in an appropriate and safe manner (“Use words to tell your brother how angry you are.”).
  •          Avoid comparisons – positive and negative
    • o   Obviously, a child will feel resentful of a sibling if the child often is on the receiving end of negative comparisons with the sibling. Importantly, Faber and Mazlish also point out that children are likely to suffer when they often are on the positive end of the comparison. Children who are often compared in a favorable light may feel excessive pressure to always “be good” and may worry about losing their parent’s favor. 
    • o   Rather than comparing siblings when one child warrants correction, Faber and Mazlish encourage parents to address the child about the issue directly and leave the sibling out of it.  More specifically, parents are encouraged to describe what they see (“I see wet towels on the floor that need to be picked up”), how they feel (“I am annoyed by the wet towel on the floor”), and/or what needs to be done (“The wet towel needs to be hung up.”).
    • o   Similar principles apply when a child is deserving of positive attention.  Faber and Mazlish again suggest that parents leave the sibling out of the situation and describe what the parent sees as being positive (“You hung up your towel without being asked!”) or how the parent feels (“I appreciate that you hung up your towel without being asked!”).  
  •          Focus on treating each child uniquely rather than equally
    • o   Many parents feel pressured to treat their children equally.  This can result in parents going to ridiculous lengths to ensure that everything is exactly equal between the children, which may not be satisfying to the parent or the child. 
    • o   Rather than focusing on equity, Faber and Mazlish suggest focusing on the unique needs of each child and/or the situation. This acknowledges what is special about each child or the child’s situation rather than forcing a “one size fits all” policy.
      •   Rather than giving equal amounts, focus on giving according to individual need. For example, ask each child at dinner time, “How big is your hunger tonight?” Then work with each child to select a portion size that fits his or her hunger rather than a portion size exactly equal to a sibling. 
      •   Rather than focusing on ensuring that each child feels equally loved, focus on how each child is loved uniquely. So, rather than “I love each of you the same,” a parent might say, “I love that there is no other you in the world.”
      •   Rather than ensuring that each child receives the same amount of time, focus on giving the amount of time that is needed for the situation.  One child may need a focused amount of a parent’s time on a certain day to complete an important school project while the other child needs a few minutes to ensure a permission slip is signed. Over time, the amount of time each child needs is likely to balance out. 

Faber and Mazlish also discuss at length ways to avoid “trapping” siblings in certain roles (“Your brother’s the athlete while you are the smart one.”) and how to manage sibling fighting.  I easily could fill multiple blog posts with their excellent suggestions, so I recommend finding a copy of the book if these are areas of concern that come up in your household.

Sibling rivalry can be a disruptive, negative force that impacts a family’s daily functioning as well as a child’s long term self-perception and emotional well-being.  My siblings and I are fortunate that our parents found ways to help us work out our differences, which paved the way for us to develop good relationships as adults.  At my wedding rehearsal dinner, my brother presented me with a brand new, never been dipped in the toilet Cabbage Patch Kid.  I saved the doll for six years until my daughter was born and then put it in her nursery. I think of my brother each time I see the doll.  My hope is that my son and daughter will have a relationship that involves both fun-loving pranks and being there for each other when they really need it.