Dr. Bob: How do you manage “sibling rivalry?”
Answer: This is a very broad question. One can address this question from the newborn period (when a newborn comes home and, all of a sudden an older child has competition for affection) or later in childhood (from preschool rivalries to teenage squabbles). Let me address this in a general way at this time, and I hope that incoming questions in the future might pose specific scenarios.
Parenting is a difficult task as it is. Add in siblings that are playing one minute and fighting the next and you have quite a mix. Some basic guidelines might be useful – 1) anticipate siblings to have bad moments. Try to learn what the triggers are for these moments and, if possible, avoid them or be ready with a diverting action; 2) hitting is not allowed. Just like we do not want adults to hit children, children should not be allowed to hit their siblings. Playful wrestling should be watched closely since it can easily get out of hand; 3) remember that any discipline needed to curb behaviors should be meted out with a calm voice. Discipline should be a teaching experience (the root word for discipline is disciple [to teach]) and be even-handed; 4) try to avoid the “blame game” that sibs so easily digress into. Be ready for this ploy; 5) Be conscious of your own circumstances (it is hard to be calm or even-handed if you are already dealing with other problems) and how this might affect your ability to handle siblings that are arguing; 6) Siblings are often competing for affection or attention. Be mindful of this and try to be fair in terms of the time and effort devoted to each child.
An important piece of advice is that parents need to recognize that most criticism and anger that children exhibit is directed to the role of the parent rather than the parent specifically. What do I mean? As a parent, some of the decisions you will make are not very popular. When the children then express their anger at the parent, remember not to take it personally but accept it in your role as the parent. This is so much easier said than done in the heat of the exchange. But it is so important! Try to PAUSE (avoid a knee jerk reaction on impulse; take that deep breath). Then ASSESS (what is the reason that this situation has gotten out of hand; how can I calm the waters or at least stop the bickering). Then CHOOSE a response that seems appropriate at the time (if things go well, congratulations!; if you realize in retrospect that things did not go well, always be ready to revisit the situation and even apologize if necessary; forgiveness is mankind’s most wonderful tool to heal relationships).
Also avoid the use of the word “hate.” You might intensely dislike certain behaviors in your children but do not express hate toward your children. Get them to avoid the word also. It is such a toxic word and typically leads to a cascade of regrettable events when repeated over and over again. Our job is to model behavior that will serve our children well as they grow up and become citizens, people that care for and care about others.
Lots more can be said about sibling rivalry. I look forward to discussing these issues more with upcoming ASK DR. BOB articles.
Dr. Saul is Professor of Pediatrics (Emeritus) at Prisma Health. Contact Dr. Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org