If you have more than one child living under your roof, chances are you’ve dealt with sibling rivalry along with shrieks of “It’s not fair!” or, “But he did it first!” Sibling rivalry is a daily struggle for millions of parents. But sibling tensions don’t have to rule your home. Read on for age-by-age strategies on smoothing sibling squabbles.
Toddler/Preschool - Two to five
Toddlers are often blissfully oblivious to sibling tensions until a new baby arrives on the scene. Even a toddler who shows excitement and tenderness toward a new sibling can display a sudden uncharacteristic jealous streak, says family therapist Josie Clark-Trippodo, LPC. “Behavioral signs of jealousy could include regression, clinginess, tantrums and aggression toward the new baby, parents or pets,” she says. Jealousy can be stealthy and appear seemingly out of the blue - one reason to never leave a new baby alone with a toddler sibling, notes Clark-Trippodo.
Spending extra one-to-one time with a jealous toddler can help reassure them and soothe feelings of jealousy. “Allow the child to warm up to the sibling on their own time, and don’t force interactions,” suggests Clark-Trippodo. Help prep a tot for a smooth sibling bond by reading books together including My New Baby by Rachel Fuller, I’m A Big Brother by Joanna Cole or There Is Going To Be A Baby by John Burningham. Parents can pick out a special ‘big brother’gift from the new baby to the older sibling and present the gift when the new baby comes home from the hospital.
Elementary Years - six to 12
Parents of school-agers can accidentally fuel sibling feuds by pitting siblings against one another. It’s easy to do. Phrases like: “Hey, let’s see who can finish their chores the fastest” or, “First person to clean her plate gets first pick of the Popsicles” seem like easy ways to motivate and reward kids, but these tactics can backfire, says licensed counselor Debbie Pincus, MS, creator of The Calm Parent program. Avoid creating a competitive atmosphere with ‘races.’Instead, use individual rewards to encourage positive behaviors. “Instead, try something like, ‘When you get your room clean, I will give you some time with the iPad.’ Have them compete with themselves, rather than each other,” says Pincus.
Beware of comparisons and labels too. Simple statements like: “Josh gets ready so quickly in the morning, why can’t you?” or, “She’s the athletic one!” can feed resentment and spark rivalry, particularly if a sibling already feels sensitive about their performance in that area. Recognize each child’s traits separately of siblings’ traits to help each child shine in their own right.
Teen Years - 13 to 18
Brotherly (or sisterly) boost
Bickering between teen siblings can be intense, but sibling rivalry isn’t always negative, notes Pincus. “If parents can stay out of the middle, rivalry can be positive, helping kids learn about problem solving, empathy and self-regulation, and helping them to recognize and strive toward qualities they admire in a brother or sister.”
Help teens learn from a sibling’s strengths, instead of resenting them, by stepping back and allowing them to work through problems on their own whenever possible. If a teen envies a sibling’s possessions, grades, social life or bank balance, ask them to think about the personality traits and behaviors that helped the envied sibling get where they are, and work together to outline a few steps to help the jealous sib achieve something similar. Then step back and let the teen carry out the steps independently to promote personal growth without sparking competition. When each sibling feels valued and heard, and nobody has to compete for a parent’s favor, kids will naturally respect their siblings, notes Pincus.
Malia is an award-winning health and parenting journalist, and mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.
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