First the bad news: Sibling rivalry can not be eliminated entirely. Children are sensitive to differences in parental treatment from a young age, possibly even from the age of one year (Judy Dunn). By 3 years old, children already have a sophisticated grasp of social rules, can evaluate themselves in relation to their siblings, and know how to adapt to circumstances within the family.
Sibling conflict is an intuitive survival mechanism designed by the youngest of children, one that often intensifies during adolescence. Children compete to get a greater share of parental attention, responsiveness, and even discipline; to define who they are as individuals; and to show that they are separate (and unique) from their siblings. It is not surprising that in homes with higher levels of parental and general stress, there is greater conflict and rivalry between children.
The good news? It is in the power of parents to reduce the opportunity for rivalry. The following are a few broad-stroke tips in how to do so:
Minimize competition by avoiding comparing siblings. Refuse to hold up one child as a role model for the others. Erase such statements as “why can’t you be like…?” from your vocabulary.
Avoid typecasting your children. Labeling (even in your mind) one child as the bully and the other as the victim; one as the smart one and the other as the artistic; one as the obedient and the other as the rebellious (and so on…) are sure ways to rigidify family roles, to limit the vision each has for him/herself, and to add fuel to the flames of rivalry.
Stop thinking “Equal & Even.” Ironically, the notion that you must buy something for Child #2 if you are buying something that Child #1 currently needs, actually fuels an atmosphere of competition. Responding to each child’s individual needs as they arise allows each child to feel unique and significant.
Avoid taking sides when your children are fighting. You NEVER know what actually happened. If the conflict has so escalated that you feel you have to intervene, step out of the role of referee and treat the kids the same. Regularly rescuing the younger child and reprimanding the older one for picking on her guarantees that the conflict will continue; the younger learns he can get mom or dad to come to the rescue, while the older grows increasingly resentful of the younger.
Step out your children’s fights as much as possible. Allow them to learn to resolve conflicts on their own (more on this in a subsequent posting).
Provide ample opportunities for positive parental attention. Avoid ongoing criticism and complaints, and find more opportunities for chatting, listening to their experiences, planning fun activities together.
Allow each child enough time and space alone with you. Individual attention works like a charm.
Encourage teamwork. The satisfaction of accomplishing a task or project together builds connection and a sense of inter-dependence between your children.
Avoid favoritism. This goes without saying. Avoid it at all costs.