Thursday, December 17, 2009

Diffusing Sibling Rivalry

If you have more than one child, you have most likely had to deal with that age old topic, sibling rivalry. What is sibling rivalry? Sibling rivalry is the natural conflicts between siblings as they attempt, usually unconsciously, to establish a 'pecking order'. Conflict among siblings isn't unique to humans. Sibling rivalry happens in just about every animal species that raises several young at the same time. Although human children don't usually have to compete with each other for basic food and shelter, other effects of sibling conflict may prove helpful in the long run. Your children will learn how to value another’s perspective, how to compromise and negotiate, and how to control aggressive impulses.

As eventually useful as sibling rivalry may be, and how important these early conflicts are in imparting life skills, the average family can only handle so much conflict. So how do you keep the conflict under control? First you need to understand what factors affect the frequency and severity of the conflicts between your children.

What causes sibling rivalry? Siblings don't choose the family they are born to, or the order in which they are born, or the sisters or brothers in the family. Each child may be a different sex, have a totally different personality, and most of all they have to share the one or two people they most want for themselves, you.

Other factors that may play a part include:

1. Position in the family, for example, the oldest child may be burdened with responsibilities for the younger children or the younger child spends his life trying to catch up with an older sibling;

2. Sex, for instance, a son may hate his sister because his father seems more gentle with her. On the other hand, a daughter may wish she could go on the hunting trip with her father and brother.

3. Age, a five and an eight year old can play some games together but when they become ten and thirteen, they will probably be poles apart.

4. The most important factor, however, is parental attitude. Parents have been taught that they must be impartial but this can be extremely difficult. It's inevitable that parents will feel differently about children who have different personalities with differing needs, dispositions. and place in the family.

Most parents feel that to be fair, they must try to treat their children equally. It is simply not possible, and it can be dehumanizing If a mother feels that when she hugs one child. she must stop and hug all of her children, hugs soon become somewhat meaningless in that family. When one child has a birthday or is ill, he or she is the one who merits the special attention and presents. You can be sure that the other children in the family no matter what they may say, recognize the inherent "fairness" of the situation.

So since sibling rivalry is normal, and even beneficial, how do you keep it form tearing your family to pieces?

Here are so simple do's and don'ts:

1. Don't make comparisons. Each child feels he or she is unique and rightly so-they are unique, and he or she may resent being evaluated only in relation to someone else. Instead of comparison, each child in the family should be given his or her own goals and levels of expectation that relate only to them.

2. Don't dismiss or suppress your children's resentment or angry feelings. Contrary to what many people think, anger is not something we should try to avoid at all costs. It's an entirely normal part of being human, and it's certainly normal for siblings to get furious with one another. They need the adults in their lives to assure them that mothers and fathers get angry, too, but have learned control and that angry feelings do not give license to behave in cruel and dangerous ways. This is the time to sit down, acknowledge the anger and talk it through.

3. Try to avoid situations that promote guilt in siblings. First we must teach children that feelings and actions are not synonymous. It may be normal to want to hit the baby on the head, but parents must stop a child from doing it. The guilt that follows doing something mean is a lot worse than the guilt of merely feeling mean. So parental intervention must be quick and decisive.

4. When possible, let brothers and sisters settle their own differences. Sounds good, but it can be terribly unfair in practice. Parents have to judge when it is time to step in and mediate, especially in a contest of unequals in terms of strength and eloquence (no fair hitting below the belt literally or figuratively). Some long-lasting grudges among grown siblings have resulted when their minority rights were not protected.

Parents aren't perfect. It can be hard to know when to step in and when not to. Some common mistakes parents make in handling sibling rivalry include:

1.Taking sides such as attempting to punish the child who is at fault, usually the one seen pounding on the other child.

2. Ignoring appropriate behavior. Parents often ignore their children when they are playing nicely. They only pay attention when a problem arises.

Here are some simple techniques that really work:

1. When the rivalry progresses to excessive physical or verbal violence OR when the number incidents of rivalry seem excessive, take action. Talk with your children about what is going on. Provide suggestions on how they can handle the situation when it occurs such as:

• Ignoring the teasing.

• Kidding back in a way that is humorous.

• Simply agreeing (in a kidding way) that whatever the teaser is saying is true.

• Telling the teaser that enough is enough.

• When these measures aren't working ask the person in charge for help.

2. When the above does not work, introduce a family plan to help with the situation that provides negative and positive consequences for all concerned such as:

• When there is any fighting or shouting, all involved will have a consequence such as a time out or writing sentences ("I will play nicely with my brother).

• However, when we can go the whole day or afternoon or evening (whatever makes sense for your situation), then everyone will earn a privilege such as:

(1) you can have a snack,
(2) I will read you a story,
(3) we will all play a game together,
(4) I will play outside with you (catch, etc) or
(5) you can stay up later. (Note that several of these provide parental attention for appropriate behavior).

Develop a system for evenly distributing coveted privileges. In other words, a system for taking turns for such things as:

• Who gets to ride "shot gun" in the car, (It's amazing how many teenagers and young adult siblings still make this an important issue).

• Who gets to push the button in the elevator,

• Who gets to chose where to go to eat lunch or dinner,

• Who gets to chose the television show,

• Who does the dishes or takes out the trash (rotate on a weekly or monthly basis)

Just remember that sibling rivalry is completely normal, and that your children are learning, with your guidance, to handle situations they will encounter every day in their adult lives.

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