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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

Sibling Squabbles

By Malia Jacobson

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!” Because eight out of ten US children live with at least one sib, rivalry is a daily struggle for millions of American parents. But sibling tensions don’t have to rule your home. Read on for age-by-age strategies on smoothing sibling squabbles.

TODDLER/PRESCHOOL (ages 2–5): Baby Blues
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. “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-on-one time with a jealous toddler can help reassure him or her and soothe feelings of jealousy. “Allow the child to warm up to the sibling on his or her own time, and don’t force interactions,” Clark-Trippodo says. Help prep a tot for a smooth sibling bond by reading together books such as Rachel Fuller’s My New Baby (Child’s Play International, 2009), Joanna Cole’s I’m A Big Brother (HarperCollins, 2010), or John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury’s There Is Going to Be a Baby (Candlewick, 2014). Parents can pick out a special “big brother” or “big sister” gift from the new baby to the older sibling.

ELEMENTARY YEARS (ages 6–12): Compare Fair
Parents of school-agers can accidentally fuel sibling feuds by pitting siblings against one another. It’s easy to do: Phrases such as, “Hey, let’s see who can finish their chores 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,” and 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,” Pincus says.

Beware comparisons and labels, too. Simple statements such as, “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 her or his performance in that area. Separately recognize each child’s traits to help each child shine in her or his own right.

TEEN YEARS (ages 13–18): Brotherly (or Sisterly) Boost
Bickering between teen siblings can be intense, but sibling rivalry isn’t always negative, Pincus notes. “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 teen siblings learn from one another’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 him or her 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 independently carry out the steps. This will 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, Pincus notes.

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night.