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Sibling Rivalry: Help for Parents


Ifyou already have a child or children, when a new baby arrives so does potentialfor sibling rivalry. As a parent you can help minimize sibling rivalries bypreparing before you bring the child home, by understanding the roots ofsibling rivalry, and by helping your children learn conflict resolutionskills. 

PreparingFor a New Sibling

Thetype and quantity of preparation a child needs to prepare for a new siblingdepends on his or her age and personality. As a parent, you need to be in tunewith each of your children's unique needs. Below are general ideas to help youprepare your child for a new brother or sister, to be adapted for each child: 

  • Whenyour child asks questions about the new brother and sister, answer clearly in away he or she can understand.
  • Talkabout the baby as a person. Describe how the baby is growing inside you andshow pictures of fetal development. Let him feel the baby moving around,kicking, or hiccupping.  
  • Talkabout your older child's birth. Most children like to hear stories aboutthemselves.
  • Readbooks together about siblings. 
  • Giveyour child a chance to interact with babies. If possible, visit friends andfamily who have new babies so he can see what real babies are like when theyare happy or crying.
  • Giveyour child experience with other caregivers, such as trusted friends andfamily. If she's never been cared for by someone other than you or yourhusband, it can be traumatic for her to be separated from you while you're atthe hospital.
  • Roleplay with your child. Use dolls to act out "Mom goes to the hospital and comeshome with a baby."
  • Haveyour child help decorate the new baby's room.
  • Go on a hospital tour. This will help your child feel apart of the birth experience, even if he's not there when delivery timearrives.
  • Minimizechanges so that your child's environment and routines remain as stable aspossible.

Bringingthe New Baby Home

Thefirst few weeks after bringing your baby home can be the most difficult.Because Mom is still recovering and is sleep-deprived from caring for thenewborn, attention to older children usually diminishes for a time. Here arestrategies to help you make the transition easier:

  • Whilethe baby is sleeping, read books with the older child.
  • Wheneverpossible, pick up your older child from school without the baby.
  • Tryto find an hour or two each day when you can spend time alone with your olderchild.
  • Keepa routine. Make daily life as normal as possible.
  • Monitorvisitors and limit them if needed. Preschoolers and toddlers might see avisitor as another person who's taking Mom or Dad's attention away.
  • Letyour older child help with the baby. Research shows that bringing the baby intothe older child's life as much as possible increases the odds that siblingswill get off to a friendly start.
  • Beprepared for escalating demands. While caring for the baby, the older childmight become more demanding. When nursing, give the older sibling a drink or abottle, give him paper and crayons, or let him snuggle up to you. You mightcreate a "nursing box" decorated with his favorite items. Place inside food,toys, crayons and other things to keep him occupied while you're nursing. Usethe box only when you're nursing so that he sees it as special.
  • Makean extra effort to praise your older child on accomplishments, such as usingthe bathroom independently. 
  • Askyour child to guess what the baby wants or needs, and then praise her for a jobwell done.

Findingthe Root of Sibling Relationships

Manyfactors contribute to sibling rivalry, including gender, spacing, personalityclashes, physical attributes, disabilities, birth order of parents, blendedfamilies, parental relationships, amount of contact with siblings, and evenboredom (see the expanded article for more information on the roots of siblingrivalry). 

HelpingChildren Share

Mostsiblings have trouble sharing. It's important for children to learn how toshare, but it's also important for them to have things of their own. Here areideas to help you minimize problems with sharing: 

  • Buyduplicate items if you can afford it.
  • Provideeach child with a special place to keep toys and possessions that is off limitsto other siblings.
  • Asoften as possible, let your child decide how and when to share. 
  • Don'tpressure children to share their most prized possessions. 
  • Teachyour children to take turns when playing a game, going down a slide, or havingthe first bath.
  • Buygifts meant for the entire family.
  • Don'tbuy gifts for individual children that the whole family will want to play with.

MakingThings Fair

Almostall children complain about things being unfair. Researchers think childrenmake a big deal out of fairness because they resent having to share theirparents' attention and because they learn quickly that accusing parents ofunfairness gets a rise out of them. Below are ideas for handling unfairnessissues:

  • Respondto need, not equality.Instead of focusing on treating each child the same, focus on each child'sindividual needs. If you're always focusing on being equal, you risk notmeeting the needs of one or more of your children.
  • Avoidtelling your children "life is unfair." Children don't understand this concept. Whena child complains that something isn't fair, validate her feelings and let herknow you understand how hard unfairness can be.
  • Respondto the child's desire, not the complaint. Sometimes a child says something is unfairas a way of saying he wants more of something. It could be more food or moretime from you.
  • Allowyour children to disagree about fairness. Your children won't always agree with everydecision you make about fairness. Don't let them make the final decision onwhat is fair and what isn't. Make decisions based on your more developed judgment,even if your children disagree.
  • Letyour children help you to make things fair. The burden of fairness doesn't needto be completely on you. Allow your children to work out problems of fairnessamong themselves.
  • Usehumor.Just as with any conflict, humor can dispel tension that builds with fairnessdisputes.
  • Don'tfocus on fairness.Parents don't need the extra pressure of trying to remember who took a bathfirst yesterday or who did the dishes last. When a child complains aboutsomething being unfair, try to find out what the child really needs. Maybe shejust needs an extra hug or some undivided attention.

HandlingSibling Conflict

Thebiggest sibling concern on most parents' minds is, "What do I do when mychildren are fighting?" There is no simple answer. Every situation and eachchild is different. Factors such as the age of the children and the nature ofthe fighting are important.

Below are ideas for handling sibling conflict from severalprofessionals. Not all suggestions will fit your situation. Remember that atechnique that works with one child may not work with another. You may findthat a combination of ideas works best.

  • Letsiblings work out problems on their own. As they do this, they'll developnegotiating and compromising skills. Guide them by saying things like, "How areyou two going to solve this?" or "Can you find a solution that will work forboth of you?" If they keep fighting, separate them until they're willing towork out a solution together. As you guide your children this way, you'll helpthem gain an important life skill.

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  • Use"break time."If the problem is extreme teasing, call a for "break time." Send each child toseparate areas of the room or the house. When they've cooled down, have themcome back together to work things out.
  • Tryrole playing or role reversal. Have the bickering children switch roles tohelp them see what it's like to be in the other person's shoes. Oftenrole-playing brings the quarrel to an end in laughter.
  • Removethe source of the conflict and distraction. If a particular item seems to be thecause of the conflict, remove it for a period of time. You can also usedistraction to end conflict by saying things such as, "Who wants to go to thepark?" or "Who wants to make cookies?" or "Who can guess when daddy is cominghome?"
  • Helpchildren understand that their actions bring consequences. Consequences are analternative to punishment. But don't confuse consequences with bribery (Formore information on consequences, see the articles Guiding Your Children and Disciplining with Love).
  • Beclear in setting rules and limits. Instead of barking out commands, tell yourchildren plainly and in terms they can understand what you expect of them.Teach them the importance of politeness and consideration among siblings.
  • Avoid labeling and comparing. It's harmful togive children labels such as clown, klutz, the athlete, the slob, the smartone, airhead, the anxious one, the fun one, or the crazy one. Labels also cancause jealousy, which leads to contention. Instead of comparing, praise each childfor his or her unique abilities.
  • Shieldyounger siblings from no-win situations. Younger children often want to compete witholder siblings, which can be very disappointing when they keep losing.
  • Askyour older children to help. You can help siblings develop a bond by having an olderchild teach the younger child new things. But don't require an older child toalways let a younger sibling participate in his games or hang out with hisfriends. Make sure the older child gets some privacy.
  • Seta good example for your children. Your children are watching how you handledisagreements and arguments with your spouse and your friends and extendedfamily. They look to your example for how to work out their own problems.

FindingGood Counseling for Sibling Rivalry

Ifsibling conflict seems out of control, it may be wise to seek familycounseling. When searching for a therapist, get referrals from friends,relatives, or your religious leader. Be careful in choosing a therapist. Thequality of the relationship between you and your therapist is the biggestpredictor  of success in therapy. Make sure the therapist you choosespecializes in helping families, respects your feelings, and respects yourpersonal and religious values. When you interview a potential therapist, beprepared with questions such as the following:

  • Areyou licensed to practice in your field? 
  • Howlong have you been in practice? 
  • Whatis your approach? 
  • Areyou a member of the national organization in your discipline? (Nationalorganizations require therapists to meet certain ethical guidelines and to beadequately trained.)
  • Whatpercentage of your practice is with children and families?

Beloware links to web sites that can help you locate therapists in your area:

Booksfor Parents

  • Siblingswithout Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Too, by Adele Faber andElaine Mazlish, 1997.
  • "Mom,Jason's Breathing On Me!": The Solution to Sibling Bickering, by Anthony E. Wolf,PH.D., 2003.
  • FromOne Child to Two: What to Expect, How to Cope, and How to Enjoy Your GrowingFamily,by Judy Dunn, 1995.
  • BeyondSibling Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Become Cooperative, Caring, andCompassionate,by Peter Goldenthal, Ph.D., 2000.
  • LovingEach One Best: A Caring and Practical Approach to Raising Siblings, by Nancy Samalinwith Catherine Whitney, 1996.

Booksfor Young Children

  • The New Baby, by Fred Rogers, 1995.
  • The New Baby at Our House, by Joanna Cole, photographs byMargaret Miller, 1985.
  • Brothers and Sister, by Maxine Rosenberg, photographsby George Ancona, 1991.
  • "Why Do We Need Another Baby?": Helping Your ChildWelcome the New Arrival with Love and Illustrations, by Cynthia MacGregor,illustrated by David Clark, 1996.

Writtenby Jeremy Boyle, Research Associate, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan,Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

References

Borden,M. E. (2003). The baffled parents guide to sibling rivalry. New York: McGraw-Hill/Contemporary.

Cicirelli,V. G. (1995). Sibling relationships across the life span. New York: Plenum Press.

Dunn,J. (1995). From one child to two: What to expect, how to cope, and how toenjoy your growing family. New York: Fawcett Columbine.

Dunn,J. (2002). Sibling relationships. In P. K. Smith & C. H. Hart (Eds.), BlackwellHandbook of Childhood Social Development (pp. 288-309). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.

Goldenthal,P. (1999). Beyond sibling rivalry: How to help your child becomecooperative, caring, and compassionate. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Landau,E. (1994). Sibling rivalry: Brothers and sisters at odds. Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press.

Samalin,N., & Whitney, C. (1996) Loving each one best: A caring and practicalapproach to raising siblings. New York: Bantam.

Wolf,A. E. (2003). "Mom, Jason's breathing on me!": The solution to siblingbickering. New York: Ballantine Books.