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Favoritism and sibling rivalry

How many times have you heard it? “It’s not fair!” Or “You let her do it. Why won’t you let me?!” Or the atom bomb of sibling relationship management, “You love him more that you love me!” It is enough make even the calmest, most even tempered, fairest mom run for the bubble bath and a glass of Chardonnay. Favoritism may not actually exist in your household, but the allegation of it can send even the strongest household dynamic spinning.

sisters fighting

Sibling rivalry takes many forms. It can be competitive or argumentative — and it can involve allegations of favoritism from parents and other family members. The perception of favoritism in particular can also be very hard to manage. Whether it’s one or all of your children making the claim, addressing it without totally validating it is tricky. The issue is usually something else — and needs to be addresses as such. That can be even trickier.

Individual strengths

Our kids all have individual strengths and challenges. Building up each of our kids as individuals with unique strengths and interests is one way to support fragile self-esteems. When a child has found that thing that they love and feels supported in pursuing it, there’s less time for rivalry and jealousy among siblings.

But when one child has found that “thing” and another hasn’t, jealousy and conflict can erupt. While you endeavor to support all your kids in their interests, is it fair to hold back supporting one just because another hasn’t found “it” yet? Nope, not really. But it can be a foundation for sibling rivalry and allegations of favoritism. The best you can do is the best you can do and what you’ve been doing already: Supporting all your kids in their interests and searches for interests — and communicate, communicate, communicate.

Building mutual respect

What you’ve likely already tried to do among your kids is something you should continue to try to do: Build mutual respect among them for their different traits and strengths.

While most kids go though ages and with one another where conflict happens, you can use the example of your own strong sibling relationships to talk to your kids about how you have developed respect for your sister or brother — and made it through those ages of conflict. If you think it’s appropriate in your situation, talk about how you or a sibling once felt the favoritism bug and how your family resolved it. The results in your family may not be instantaneous, but you’re keeping the lines of communication open.

Personality traits

Not everything about your children’s interpersonal dynamic — and parent-child dynamic — is your fault. Sometimes our kids have personality traits that…perplex us. Sometimes, no matter our efforts at supporting individual strengths or establishing strong relationships, one of our children will be prone to the favoritism claim. It doesn’t mean you should stop addressing it and resolving it, but it may give you insight into a different way to address the rivalry between your kids — and help you feel less frustrated or guilty!

For example, if it were really all up to us, if every aspect of our children’s personalities and responses were really our “fault,” our kids would be exactly the same. They came from the same parents, in the same environment, so responses should be the same, right? We all know that’s not the case in other areas, so why should it be any different when sibling rivalry is the issue and favoritism is the allegation?

Seek help

There are times when the issue of favoritism between and among siblings just won’t die. No matter your efforts to reassure all your kids of your love for them and their uniqueness, the issue won’t go away or diminish. In that instance, favoritism likely isn’t the root issue at all. It could be just a cover for other issues your child may be struggling to deal with.

After all your efforts, if your child is still struggling, consider asking for help — for your child and your family. Ask your child’s pediatrician or a school counselor for a referral to a respected local therapist that can help your child and you figure out just what is going on and the best way to help. It may not have anything to do with sibling rivalry at all!

Sibling rivalry and allegations of favoritism are issues most families deal with at one time or another. They can be dealt with — and without validating the favoritism claim. But keep the bubble bath handy.

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