Sibling Rivalry, I think, is one of the toughest issues that parents need to manage. In many families there is a child, who seems to have it all and another child who struggles and seems lost behind the shine of his sibling.
This is a tricky issue and many parents are stumped as to how to deal with it. There are ways to help ease the tensions of sibling rivalry. One way to do that is to value all the kids in your family for who they are.
To do that it is helpful to stop focusing on accomplishments. Instead we want to promote the idea that trying, putting in effort is a worthy goal. We also want to foster respect in our home. This won’t get rid of sibling rivalry altogether but will help up the odds of having more peace in our homes and possibly a more pleasant dinner table.
So how can we do all of this? Here are some simple ideas that may help:
Who cares who won the game?
As I said above, we want to set up our home in a way that we are not always talking about our kid’s accomplishments. I know this might sound foreign to our ears but constantly telling kids what they are good at “You are great at math!” and beaming about their latest achievements on the soccer field, “You are the greatest soccer player”, sends the wrong messages to our kids.
Instead we need to keep our dinner conversations away from what our kids are doing and take some time to talk about our goals for our family, current events, and community concerns. We can of course let everyone share something about our day, but not if it becomes a competition.
So instead of:
Parent: “So how was that math test you took today.”
Child: “I aced it”
Parent: “Great job!”
(You can leave those conversations if you need for a private moment.)
“I heard that there was an earthquake in Timbuktu. Mom and I were trying to figure out how we as a family could help.”
“Grandma’s birthday is coming up, any ideas for gifts?”
“The Jones family just had a baby, isn’t that exciting.”
“Someone keeps leaving the pretzel and chip bags open. The food is getting stale. Can we work on this please?”
When we stop stresses what we have accomplished on our day and instead focus on the needs of others and our family we are teaching our kids a valuable lesson or two or three.
1. The world does not revolve around them.
2. Accomplishments are not just the things we succeed at, it is also our efforts that count (see below for more)
3. We as a family want to make our impact by doing a little bit of good in this world.
Sometimes when we talk about our kid’s accomplishments we may take it even one step further. We can compare our kids and pigeonhole them.
We may say:
“You are the best in math and your brother is the best in sports.”
This can create a lot of friction. It puts kids in a tenuous position of trying to maintain their status in their area of expertise (that has been imposed on them by their parent) all the days of their lives.
Again, we want to avoid the focus on their accomplishments and more on the effort they put into their work. That is the best indicator for success. (So really it is the child who works hard for everything, who is ahead of the game.)
In a breakthrough study, Carol Dweck of Columbia University, discovered that praising our children for their effort, for working hard, persevering at a difficult task and figuring out solutions to problems is the best way to encourage kids. Children who are praised in this way are motivated to learn and will challenge themselves. They feel that they have control over their intelligence and they only have to increase their effort to succeed at school, with friends and eventually at work and with their most important relationships, their families.
Here is what we can say to our perceived underdog to give him a boost and to move us from focusing on his accomplishments to his efforts:
“I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies on that math problem until you finally got it.”
“It was a long, hard assignment, but you stuck to it and got it done. You stayed at your desk, kept up your concentration, and kept working.”
“I saw you were getting frustrated with your homework. You stopped and took a break and a drink. That helped you regain your concentration and finish your work.”
And to the sibling that doesn’t have to work too hard, you need to find some activities where he does put in effort. Point out the process of his work. Be creative:
“You helped Michael with his motorcycle, you went over there on Monday to help with the engine and then today you went over to do the body work…”
“Thanks for working with me on painting the bathroom, priming, and then painting the woodwork and then the walls…”
In general, cultivate a feeling of respect in your home. Part of that is teaching kids table manners and the rules of polite discussion.
If things are getting out of hand at dinner you can gently mediate and remind them of some basic etiquette:
“Let’s try not to interrupt…”
“Let’s hear him out…”
“I want to hear what you have to say right after Josh finishes…”
Remember, Sibling Rivalry is normal. Once kids are grown they won’t have to live together and they can forge their own unique paths. Tensions may linger but it is most likely that they will be good friends. More important, they will be there for each other when the chips are down.
That is the thought that I hold onto when I watch my kids squabble over the disagreement of the day.
Adina Soclof, MS. CCC-SLP