According to Rhonda Richards-Smith, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist with more than 10 years of experience in the mental health field, "Sibling rivalry can have a profound impact on the dynamics of any family. Unsuccessful efforts on the part of parents and other family members can frustrate the entire family unit."
Joanne Wendt, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in San Diego who specializes in marriage and family therapy. "I have dealt with many families in my private practice concerning the issue of sibling rivalry and it does place an extreme amount of stress on parents as they feel the need to intervene and stop the fight in order to maintain peaceful harmony within the family," she says. "Additional stress can be encountered if the parents disagree on how to approach their children’s misbehavior."
Richards-Smith notes that sibling fights can result in something as simple as the kids being tired, hungry or bored. She notes, "Keep them active, well-fed and make sure [kids] get plenty of rest."
However, sibling rivalry is also a result of the children vying for their parents' attention, so parents should never compare their children.
"Most children want to be recognized and praised for being the unique individuals that they are," she says. "Because of this, some tension can occur when children become frustrated by pressures to conform or mimic their siblings' achievements, decisions and activities. It is critical for parents to encourage each child to — with guidance — follow their own path. By doing so, your children can flourish with the security of knowing you love and accept them for who they are."
It's also important not to play favorites or label your children as "the smart one" or "the pretty one," according to Richards-Smith. She says, "By singling out and labeling your kids, you can all but guarantee that sibling rivalry will rear its ugly head with a vengeance. While it's common for children to feel that parents take sides and favor their sibling from time to time, do your best to spend time with each child individually and equally whenever possible — and praise them for their individual gifts and talents."
Wendt believes the best way to get your children to resolve their own issues is to stay out of their squabbles entirely — unless one or the other is in danger of getting seriously hurt. "When parents step in and try to stop the fight, the fight is no longer over what originally started the fight," she says. "It’s now about proving to the intervening parent that the other sibling is to blame and win favor with that parent."
She adds, "It is imperative for parents to be 100 percent consistent in staying out of their children’s fights, unless they are in danger of serious injury. Children need to know with 100 percent certainty that parents mean to do what they say 100 percent of the time. Inconsistency will make their best intentions to curb sibling fighting fail — and the fight will be on again to win their favor."
We as parents need to be there to show our children the proper way to behave in every situation, including how to resolve conflict. Richards-Smith says, "One of the possible positive outcomes of sibling rivalry is that it gives children the opportunity to learn how to resolve conflict in a respectable and responsible manner. So, be mindful of how you engage in and resolve conflict within your household. Learning these skills will serve your children well within their own families and as they grow into adulthood."
Wendt notes that we as parents are extremely important to our children and our attention is the "gold prize." She adds, "Give them that positive attention outside the realm of sibling rivalry and peaceful, harmonious families will flourish."
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