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Seven strategies to minimize sibling rivalry

Michele Borba, EdD, is an internationally renowned educational consultant and recipient of the National Educator Award. She has presented workshops to more than 750,000 participants worldwide. She is the award-winning author of 20 books ...

sibling rivalry

Summertime is the perfect time for a makeover -- for your kids, that is! Get their attitudes in check and put an end to sibling rivalry while creating some harmony in your house! Michele Borba, EdD, author of No More Misbehavin': 38 Difficult Behaviors and How to Stop Them, offers some advice!

Brother and sister back to back

Sibling rivalry

"I know my dad loves me and wants me to do really well, but instead he just makes me feel so bad. All he does is compare me to my brother and tell me I should try to be more like him. I know I can never be like him, but the worst thing is I'm starting to hate my brother. I don't mean to. I just do. Can you help me?"
-- Jordan, age 13, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Behavior tip

Don't drive yourself crazy trying to always make things fair in your house. Life just isn't. Instead, teach kids the skills that promote harmony so they're more likely to cooperate.

"That's not fair!"
"Billy always gets to have his way!"
"You like him better than me!"

Much as we try to make our kids feel equally loved, they accuse us of showing "favoritism." Sibling jealousy is an inevitable part of home life and is strongest usually around the ages of five to 11. Treating kids equally is plain unrealistic: they come packaged with different temperaments, interests, and needs.

So don't drive yourself too crazy trying to make things always fair. It just isn't realistic. Besides, real life isn't fair. The trick is to minimize conditions that break down sibling relationships that can cause long-lasting resentment. The bottom line to this behavior problem: while some rivalry is plain unavoidable, parents can discourage sibling disharmony by giving careful attention to how their household atmosphere is structured.

Seven strategies to minimize sibling rivalry

Use the following seven ideas to guide you in minimizing jealousy and disharmony amongst your kids:

1. Refrain from comparing behaviors.

Never compare or praise one kid's behavior in contrast to a sibling: it can create long-lasting strains. "Why can't you be more like your sister?" "Why aren't you organized like your brother?" All too easily, kids can interpret such comparisons as: "You think he's better than me" or "You love him more." It unfairly puts pressure on the sibling you praised and devalues your other child.

2. Listen openly to all sides.

Listening fairly your kids is not only a powerful way to convey that you respect each child's thoughts and want to hear all sides: "Thanks for sharing. Now I want to hear your brother's side." The key is to build a fair relationship with each sibling so that he or she knows not only that you value each opinion and you're an unbiased listener.

3. Never compare schoolwork.

Kids should compare their schoolwork, test scores, and report cards only to their own previous work -- never to the work of their siblings or friends. Instead of stimulating a child to work harder, comparisons are more likely to fuel resentment.

4. Avoid using negative labels.

Family nicknames like Shorty, Clumsy or Klutz can cause unfair family ribbings and fuel sibling resentment. "Don't worry, he's just the family klutz" -- as well as become daily reminders of incompetence. These kinds of labels often stick and become difficult to erase, not only within but also outside your family as well.

5. Nurture a unique strength for each sibling.

All kids deserve to hear from parents what makes them unique. Knowledge of that talent nurtures their self-esteem as well as setting them apart from their siblings. Ideally, you should nurture a different strength for each sibling based on natural temperament and interests. Once you identify the talent, find opportunities to cultivate and validate it so each child can be acknowledged for their strength.

6. Find special alone time with each child.

One way to let each child feel treasured is by spending alone just with each parent. Capitalize on those individual moments as they arise: "Your brother's asleep. Let's just you and I go read books together." Or make a date with each sibling to have special time just with you then mark it on the calendar. How frequently you meet is based on what's realistic for your schedule: 30 minutes weekly, 10 minutes daily, an hour every other week. Arrange for another adult to watch other siblings or choose a time when they're gone. "Together" occasions could be: a movie, a walk, lunching at a favorite restaurant, kite flying, an ice cream outing, or just time alone. Then enjoy each other without siblings around.

7. Reinforce cooperative behavior.

Don't overlook one of the simplest ways to boost sibling harmony: catch them supporting each other. The moments may be few and far between, but when they do help, share, cooperate, and work well together, tell them you appreciate their efforts. They're more likely to repeat the behaviors because they know that's what you want them to do.

Renown pediatric experts, William Sears and Martha Sears, cite four factors that affect the intensity of sibling rivalry:

  1. Each sibling's natural temperament
  2. How parents feel about and relate to each kid
  3. Conditions parents create to encourage sibling harmony
  4. How much sibling warfare parents allow. The Sears' stress in The Discipline Book that while parents can't influence the first factor, they do affect the remaining three.

Up next: Behavior makeover plan >>

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