Community Commentary: Softening up that sibling rivalry

Sibling rivalry has been an issue as long as families have existed. In fact, it's a bummer that whenever the word "sibling" comes up, the word "rivalry" is almost sure to follow. Does this mean that solid sibling relationships (i.e. brothers and sisters who are not always in competition and actually like and enjoy one another) in families are few and far between? I doubt it. It just seems that the rivalry gets all the negative attention…think Cinderella and countless other stories we've grown up with.

Have we ever really thought about what causes sibling rivalry? There can be natural causes of rivalry such as different ages, temperament, different sex and physical appearances. There can also be environmental factors that cause sibling rivalry. Teachers, parents, grandparents, coaches, etc. all can influence the children's behavior.

Now that we've identified some causes of sibling rivalry, let's explore the pros and cons. Can some sibling rivalry actually be positive? Absolutely. Rivalry stems from competition. Some competition can be healthy, a pro. Competition fosters drive, desire, persistence and acceptance, all positive traits. I have three boys. It is a fact that they do compete. They compete in school, on the soccer field, swimming, playing the Wii, with their friends, etc. The list goes on and on.

The competition naturally encourages the siblings to try harder. They possess a resilience that I believe is a result of this healthy competition. They see one brother reading, they want to learn to read. They see one brother riding a scooter, they want to ride a scooter. The younger sibling tries extra hard to always keep up with the older sibling. The older sibling always strives to be one step ahead of the younger siblings. This competition and yearning to keep up with one another can be used to develop healthy bonds among siblings.

Sibling rivalry can also have a negative effect on a child. It can create low self-esteem when a child lives in the shadow of their sibling. Every sibling needs to develop a healthy self-image. They need to feel like an individual, separate from their siblings. Sibling rivalry can have adverse effects on a child's self-esteem when they are always being compared to their sibling. "Your brother is such an amazing soccer player..." If a child feels "less than" their sibling, they may generate resentment and disdain toward that sibling. They may feel that their skill level or intelligence will never match their sibling, and they may be prone to "giving up" quicker in sports and school work.

So, what should a parent do? Parents should be aware of the rivalry or competition because it can obviously be harmful if left ignored. Here are some tips that may soften some of the sibling rivalry within a family:

•Recognize and celebrate the individual differences of each child. One child may love sports and one may love arts and music. Supporting their individual interests will promote autonomy and a strong sense of self-worth.

•Don't make comparisons between siblings. ("I don't get why Johnny can't ride his bike…Susie could when she was his age.") Each child is unique and needs to feel unique. People in general will resent being evaluated only in relation to someone else. Try giving each child in the family their own goals and levels of expectation that relate only to that specific child.

•Don't dismiss or suppress your child's resentment or angry feelings. Anger is a normal part of being human, and it's perfectly normal for siblings to be angry at one another. The adults need to assure the children and role model for them that mothers and fathers get angry too. However, we have learned to control our feelings by expressing them in healthy ways (verbally). Acknowledge the angry feelings and talk it through with the child, giving them alternative choices ("I know that you hate Johnny right now, but you cannot hit him with a stick").

•Try to avoid situations that promote guilt in siblings. Children must learn that actions and feelings are not synonymous. It may be a natural reaction to their frustration and anger for a child to hit, but parents must provide the child with healthy alternatives to replace the negative behavior. The guilt that follows actually hurting someone is a lot worse than the guilt felt for being angry with someone.

•There are several parenting techniques that may be effective if sibling rivalry is already progressed within the family to physical or verbal violence. Talk with your children about what is going on and provide suggestions on how they can better handle the situation. A child can also be empowered to tell the sibling to stop the teasing. A child also can ask the parent or whoever is in charge for help.

•Parents may also introduce a "family plan" or behavior chart to help with the situation that provides both negative consequences and positive rewards to the children involved. For example, "time-out" or "loss of privileges" for the negative consequences and extra park time for the positive rewards can be powerful tools for parents to use to discourage fighting among siblings.

Sibling rivalry can teach siblings to learn to share, to deal with jealousy and to accept their individual strengths and weaknesses. Siblings can confide and trust in each other. They can encourage and support each other's successes. Hopefully, we as parents can nurture the relationship between siblings to promote success, support and friendship.

ADAM GRINDLINGER is a licensed psychotherapist with private practices in Huntington Beach and with Dr. Duggan and Associates in Long Beach. He can be reached at (562) 833-8185 or at http://www.adamgrindlinger.com.

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