Sibling rivalry: How to squash the squabbling

Sibling rivalry is a normal part of growing up in a family. Most sibling rivalry stems from children's competition to gain their parents' attention. Fortunately there are some simple ways to help them learn to cope with conflict in healthy ways.

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  • Sibling rivalry is a tale as old as time. Remember Cain and Abel? Even Wally and the Beav had their moments. Honestly, if it weren’t for some good old-fashioned brother vs. sister warfare, the Brady Bunch would have run out of material long before five seasons aired.

  • While we can take some comfort in the fact that sibling conflict is normal and healthy, many parents still end up frustrated with what can feel like endless bickering between children. Fortunately, most sibling rivalry is rooted in a primitive competition for parental attention. That’s good news. It means there is a lot that parents can do to help diffuse these squabbles. Like many of our challenges as parents, sibling rivalry presents an awesome playground where we can observe and work with our children to help mold their character. Here are a few simple techniques we can use to bring peace to the household.

  • Celebrate differences

  • We may go to great lengths to keep things equal and fair between our kids, but experts say we may be putting our energy in the wrong place. Dr. Kevin Leman, psychologist and author of "Have a New Kid by Friday," suggests that parents can actually do a lot of good by focusing on the kids’ unique qualities rather than making sure everything is identical for them. “Look for ways you can emphasize differences within your family. Where one is weak, another is strong. Even little things matter,” says Dr. Leman. Girls and boys are different. There are privileges and responsibilities older kids have that younger ones won’t. Some kids’ personalities are prone to be better at certain tasks than others. Pointing out areas where each kid excels will not only make him less competitive, but will boost his self-esteem.

  • Check yourself

  • In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we often make choices throughout the day without awareness that we’re being selective. Make sure you don’t unconsciously play favorites by showing preference for one child over another. One child may be going through a phase that particularly challenges your patience. It may require extra effort to spend equal time and affection on your kids. Be willing to take the time to listen to your children and see how your view of your relationship with them lines up with how they see it. They will be much less inclined to get angry with each other when they don’t feel as though one is being given preferential treatment.

  • Prioritize family time

  • If this means eliminating some extracurricular activities, then do it. Show your children affection. Studies show that children’s perceptions of their parents’ warmth played a large factor in sibling rivalry. Spending time together also gives you the opportunity to teach your kids to think about their siblings more so than themselves. Jim Bob Duggard, father of 19 children says, “We try to get our children, each one in our family, to serve each other. When a child realizes that the world does not revolve around him, that we are in this world to actually serve others and serve God, that creates a whole new level of maturity."

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  • Lead by example

  • . Don’t shy away from conflict with your spouse or other family members when your kids are around. Allow your children to see that disagreements are normal, and there are healthy ways to work through them. Here is an excellent place to show your kids the power of forgiveness in practical living. It’s great practice for us, too.

  • Be a coach, not a referee

  • Lastly, let them work out their differences as much as possible. “Be a coach, not a referee,” says Dr. Laurie Kramer, University of Illinois psychologist who has done multiple studies on sibling conflict. “Encourage them to approach every conflict as a problem with a solution.” You’ll begin to overhear your kids listening to each other and working toward a better understanding.

  • Staying consistent with these suggestions will certainly help you achieve results in decreasing conflict between the siblings in your home. In time, you’ll be much more likely to be listening to more mature, loving conversation rather than a constant nagging at each other, which is sure to make you smile.

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Margaret Crowe is a poet and mother of two from Charlotte, North Carolina. 

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