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Take the rivalry out of sibling relationships

By Amy McCready, Positive Parenting Solutions founder and TODAY Moms contributor

If you have more than one child in your home, you likely also have sibling rivalry.

It’s a universal issue that haunts 7-year-olds, 17-year-olds and, chances are, more adults than you would guess.

But that doesn’t mean parents need to live with competition, arguing and an unwillingness to cooperate.

Believe it or not, your kids can enjoy good relationships with each other, for more than five minutes at a time! It just takes a little work on your part.

In fact, you may be surprised to learn that the way YOU respond to the rivalry will determine whether it will be an ongoing problem.

Parent behaviors that increase sibling competition

- Subtle and not-so-subtle labels

Anytime we label a child, we create a competitive environment that fuels sibling rivalry. Whether it’s a positive label -- such as funny, smart, or athletic -- or a negative label -- like wild, shy, or not very motivated -- we are drawing comparisons.

For instance, if Big Sister is the “artistic one,” how would Little Sister feel about her own creative capabilities? And if Little Sister is the “soccer star,” do you think Big Sister would feel very motivated to head out to the field?

Sometimes labels are less obvious. Do you have a “go to” kid -- the one you approach when you want something done quickly and without a fuss? If you rely heavily on this child, your other kids will perceive themselves as less capable and less dependable.

Whether the labels are overt or subtle, they breed competition and jealousy between siblings that can carry through to adulthood.

- Playing judge & jury

When kids fight, our instinctive reaction is to intervene and make it stop. Why? Partly because sibling fighting goes against our yearning for family harmony. We can’t stand to listen to our kids fight and we feel the need to put an end to the battle. However, in most cases, getting involved in kids’ fights does more harm than good.

When we swoop in, try to determine who started it and who’s at fault, and then tell the kids involved what they need to do to fix it, we send the message that they can’t handle it on their own. We rob them of the opportunity to develop conflict resolution skills.

Taking sides and judging who’s at fault reinforces “victim” and “aggressor” labels that your kids may wear throughout their life. The “victim” learns there’s a big payoff of attention that comes from being a victim, as mom always takes his or her side in the conflict. The “aggressor” learns there is power in being the aggressor or bully.

If fights happen often enough, and mom or dad continually reinforce these labels, both are prone to living them out.

3 strategies To minimize sibling rivalry in your home (Best for kids 3 and up):

1. Ignore the fighting

I’m certainly not suggesting that you let your children fall into harm’s way or duke it out to the end. However, instead of quickly jumping in to administer justice, practice NOT getting involved. It’s easy for kids to yell, “Moooooooooomm” because they know you’ll be there in a flash to solve the problem for them. Instead, let all of your children know in advance that you’re not going to be getting involved in the arguments and fights anymore, and you have confidence that they can work it out on their own.

Expect your kids to still be calling for you to play judge and jury at first, but resist the urge to get involved. By ignoring the fights, you’ll soon be surprised at how many of the arguments they’ll actually resolve themselves. What’s more, you’ll also be able to listen and assess whether your involvement is really required.

2. Intervene only as a facilitator

If you feel you must get involved, don’t concern yourself with who started it or who did what to whom. Instead, let them know you’re only interested in problem solving.

Begin by asking, “What ideas do you have to solve this problem?”

You’ll probably receive a couple of blank stares in response, so simply repeat, “I’m not concerned with who started it or what happened, what ideas do you have to solve this problem?” This gives the kids ownership to find a solution that both can agree on, as well as the impetus to think for themselves.

If the siblings can’t come up with anything, you can suggest one. But resist the urge to give them a solution until they’ve had a chance to mentally wrestle with it on their own. If they can’t come to an agreement, even after you suggest an option or two, it’s time to move on to strategy #3.

3. All in the same boat

When the kids can’t work out a solution on their own, it’s time to put “everyone in the same boat,” with everyone experiencing the same consequences. For instance, if your children can’t agree on which video game to play or who gets to go first, everyone loses video privileges for that day.

This solution avoids the “he started it, she started it” debate and removes the winner/loser and victim/aggressor labels. After all, everyone involved is equally guilty for continuing the dispute. All of the participants in the argument win if they can find a way to cooperate in solving the disagreement or they all lose if they are unwilling to work together for a common solution. Neither the victim nor the aggressor has a motivation to continue to fight.

If you’re wondering if this is really fair, remember that each participant in a fight has an equal opportunity to walk away or try to work out a solution using words. By rewarding the “victim” with your attention as you play judge and jury, you deny him the chance to learn effective conflict management strategies and encourage him to play the victim again and again. What’s more, if you can remove yourself from the situation, you take your attention away from the aggressor as well, and greatly reduce the competition for mom’s attention that often fuels sibling rivalry in the first place.

When addressing sibling rivalry, it’s not likely that you will eliminate it completely. However, what you can do is reduce your own behaviors that fuel competition, and help your children develop conflict-resolution skills that will teach them how to effectively manage relationships later in life. What’s more, when your kids learn to work out their own disagreements, they’ll strengthen their own bonds so that someday you may see the harmonious family relationships you’ve been dreaming of.

Amy McCready is the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and mom to two boys, ages 12 and 14. Positive Parenting Solutions teaches parents of toddlers to teens how to correct misbehaviors permanently without nagging, reminding or yelling. For free discipline training resources, visit: www.PositiveParentingSolutions.com