my red button: sibling rivalry!

“You are not my brother anymore”… “You are a meany poopy sister”… words that are often thrown from one of my children to another… and then of course the child who was teased or who was called a name either returns the favor or worse: strikes! While I know how “normal” is it for siblings to engage in rivalry, it still doesn’t cease to push my buttons and boil my blood.

During one of our recent sessions in the New Orleans Parents Club, we addressed sibling rivalry and reasons why parents have such a hard time tolerating what is considered normal and inevitable among even the closest brothers and sisters. One reason that I think parents have a hard time with rivalry amongst their children, which I relate to, is that we take it personally. I know I do because whenever one child hits another I think, “How did I raise a child who hits?” In other words, how does this aggressive act reflect on me as a person or as a parent? I would often quickly look back to my childhood and think: I have one brother and while we fought with our words, we never fought with our hands. Not only do I judge myself but think how others are judging me or my children if the acts of sibling rivalry are in front of friends or strangers.

The problem with my reaction to my children’s rivalry is that I make a situation that is really not about “me” at all and put the focus on “me!” When I make my children’s’ issues about me, it blocks my ability to react appropriately and effectively and instead react with frustration (and probably some unnecessary yelling) and generally regret that I got involved at all.

When siblings argue or fight it’s not about us or our parenting. Siblings fight for a variety of reasons and when we interfere, we do not allow them the opportunity to work it out on their own. When we interfere, because of our own inability to tolerate their tension, we also tend to make one child into the aggressor and one into the victim. That of course is hardly fair since we generally only saw the last three minutes of the argument and we all know it takes two to tango. Moreover, the fight that we witness is part of a long-standing dynamic (probably that started when one child was in utero) that equally involves both children.

Some advice that has helped me from the amazing book Siblings SiblingsWithoutRivalrywithout Rivalry by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish is that most of the time, when there is no physical danger, we should let our children work it out. For example, the authors talk about what to do when there is Normal Bickering (level 1 fighting), we could:

  1. Ignore it. Think about your next vacation.
  2. Tell yourself the children are having an important experience in conflict resolution.

When the situation is heating up (level II fighting) and adult intervention might be helpful, we could:

  1. Acknowledge their anger “You two sound mad at each other!”
  2. Reflect each child’s point of view: “So Sara, you want to keep on holding the puppy, because he’s just settled down in your arms. And you Billy, feel you’re entitled to a turn too.”
  3. Describe the problem with respect: “That’s a tough one: Two children and only one puppy.”
  4. Express confidence in the children’s ability to find their own solution: “I have confidence that you two can work out a solution that’s fair to each of you.

The bottom line is that our children are probably going to fight and argue. When we are self-aware, however, we allow ourselves to let go and give our children a gift for life: Learning problem solving skills that ultimately create confident and independent children.

How do you handle sibling rivalry in your home?

Written by Dr. Dahlia Topolosky

Dr. Dahlia Topolosky

Dr. Dahlia Topolosky is a licensed psychologist and parent coach. Her practice focuses on individual and group therapy, as well as psycho-educational evaluations for behavior and learning disorders. Dahlia is founder of the New Orleans Parents Club (NOPC), a group for parents to socialize and learn positive and effective parenting skills. She also provides private, parent coaching to parents struggling with the normal ups and downs of parenting. Dahlia loves singing, playing guitar and hand drums, and spending time with her husband Rabbi Uri of Beth Israel, and their 4 children.

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