Sibling rivalry is a fact of life. Whether it results in lack of family harmony and unhappiness depends on how parents respond to it. Handled properly, it has the potential for helping children to grow and to develop by providing opportunities for them to learn to negotiate, to share, to deal with competition and to solve problems in the protective environment of the family.
Parents and children need to accept the fact that all children are unique and thus should be treated uniquely. The fact that children have different personalities and talents does not mean that one is better than another. Rather children should feel that their differences make them more interesting. If parents compare siblings only in a positive way, jealousy or envy need not result.
Parents sometimes encourage competition and comparisons among siblings in the mistaken belief that it will make them work harder and be more successful. Siblings may avoid active participation in an activity in which another sibling does well especially if they are close in age. If the first child is successful in academic skills, the second child tends to try something else, usually athletics. In some families, an overachieving sibling will be followed by an underachieving one. Parents may not have caused this competition, but they may have unwittingly contributed to it.
Parents may also attach roles and labels to different members of the family which are usually very difficult to change and which shape the siblings’ personalities. The “responsible” child is given more responsibility. The “good” child often is rewarded for telling on the “bad” child. The “baby” has everything done for him or her. Other labels which parents might recognize are: tomboy, sissy, shy, stubborn, lazy, messy and so forth. Children tend to live up to these labels.
There are some general guidelines which usually help toward bringing about harmony between and among siblings. The most important one is not to become involved in their arguments. Most arguments among children occur in the parents’ presence for the purpose of gaining the parents’ attention. Parents treat children with more respect when they allow them to handle the problem themselves without parental refereeing. Try not to become involved in playing detective because fault-finding only increases rivalry among children. If children’s arguments are disturbing to parents, they should be sent somewhere else to settle the argument. Parents can also express confidence in the children’s ability to solve the problem by themselves.
Children like to feel special. One way to make your children feel special is to spend time with each one individually. This helps everybody but especially the quiet member of the family. It gives him or her the opportunity to talk with you without interruption. You also get to know your children as individuals each with his own unique personality.
If possible, it also helps for older siblings to have some place or space of their own and to be able to keep personal belongings there safely. They should not have to give these up for a much younger sibling who cries for them. We sometimes do this to older children in order to keep peace in the family. What results is that the older children begin to resent the younger, more privileged ones.
If handled well, the support siblings give each other as they grow older can be very comforting to parents. You know they will never be alone because they have each other. I encourage you to foster this relationship.
Photo credit: Aussie Malaysian Family / Creative Commons 2.0