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Sibling Rivalry Series Part 3: How to Raise Siblings Without Rivalry

One of the most common questions we get from parents of toddlers is how to cope with the arrival of a new sibling. In this series, we have already offered some suggestions on how to prepare your little prince or princess in advance, and how to help your toddler adjust once baby arrives. In this post we will share some ideas for reducing rivalry over the long term.

At the heart of sibling rivalry is the fact that brothers and sisters have to share their parents' love and attention as well as finite space and resources. Kids are also figuring out their place in the family and are concerned about fair treatment and control. There are things that parents unintentionally do that increase rivalry, so there are ways to reduce the amount of rivalry as well.

12 Tips for raising siblings without rivalry;

1. Make sure all of your kids know they are valued. Reinforce all the wonderful things about who they are as individuals and how they contribute to the family. "Mariam, I love the way you help me," or "Sara, I love the way you make me laugh," which honor specific contributions and help your child develop a sense of why she's a valuable member of the family. Make it clear that the family needs each person for it to be whole, and each person’s unique qualities are equally precious. You don’t need to tell your kids that you love them equally; you need to tell them that you love each one for the unique person s/he is.

2. Be careful not to compare. Saying, “why can’t you eat as well as your sister does?,” or “When will you learn to tidy up as quickly as your brother does?” will only lead to misery. “Comparison is the thief of joy” is a quote from Theodore Roosevelt. Even complimentary comparisons can be harmful, as it can set kids up to compete with each other. Set standards for each child according to his temperament and abilities and teach him to be happy with whoever he is.

3. Carve out time for each child. With busy families and lives, it's easy for a younger child to constantly trail along to an older one's activities, or for older ones to have to wait around while little ones are fed or put down for a nap. This can lead to resentment if one thinks the world revolves around her brother or sister. Make time to do something special with each child, even 10 minutes a day. Child-led playtime, which we teach about in our ToddlerCalming workshops, is most powerful.

4. Avoid labels. It is a normal human impulse, but putting labels on your kids can cause many problems. For example, if you call one of your kids "artistic" or "athletic,” it may induce competition, because it puts a value on being artistic or athletic and makes a child think he's not as valuable as his brother if he's not that way. Labels also limit individual children and have a stronger effect than you realize on how they see themselves and how they approach life. Growing children need to be able to experiment with multiple roles and identities.

5. Don’t tolerate violence or hurtful words. If sibling conflicts become physical or mean, you must separate them and tell them that you will not allow anyone to be hurt. Give them some cooling off time, some unconditional love, and then help them find more acceptable ways to express their grievances.

6. Stay out of it when you can. When it comes to older kids, unless something dangerous is happening, don't jump in the middle of an argument or get worked up when they fight. If you get involved they may increase their fighting as a way to get attention. (Instead, give each child attention in positive ways every day) Taking sides in a disagreement or jumping to one child's defense can lead to resentment. Letting siblings solve problems and compromise with one another teaches them valuable life skills. Tell them, “I am confident that you two can work it out. If you need help let me know.”

7. Listen to grievances and help them hear one another. When you do get involved, don’t just dismiss complaints about the other sibling. Also, don’t solve the conflict, but help them talk it through. “I hear you both saying that you want to play with that toy right now. How can you work it out so you are both happy? Let me know what you decide.” Sometimes giving everyone a hug will de-escalate bad feelings and change the dynamic of the interaction. Reassure them that you love everyone unconditionally, even when they don’t get along perfectly, and they will often then solve their disagreement quite happily.

8. Remember that fair doesn't always mean equal. Equal means treating everyone the same, which is not possible when kids are different ages and have different abilities and different needs. Fair means doing what is best for each child. Explain why they may need to be treated differently (“The baby can’t dress himself yet, but you are big and you can. Someday baby will learn to do it too.” “Your brother is 10 and you are 7 and you need more sleep, so he can stay up a bit later. When you are 10 you will also be able to stay up that late.”) If kids feel there is a reason for being treated differently and that it's justified, you'll stir up less rivalry.

9. Notice good behavior. Instead of giving your children attention when they're fighting, do it when they're playing nicely. Praise them when they work out a conflict or are sharing, and point out how great it is that they have managed on their own. Saying something like, “I feel so happy when you two play so happily together,” or “I saw how you helped your brother with his shoes,” can be very powerful forms of praise and positive reinforcement.

10. Let siblings nurture each other. Don’t always jump in when one sibling gets hurt or upset. Allow a moment for another sibling to model your nurturing behavior towards the upset child. This will help to build their bond and will also build their image of themselves and each other as caring and nurturing people.

11. Set aside downtime when siblings can play together. Many kids are over-scheduled in general and some parents are inclined to schedule separate play dates for their kids so they interact mostly with same-age friends. If siblings have downtime (without screens) they will have the opportunity to find ways to entertain each other and form a strong friendship together based on common interests and activities. While friends may move away, siblings will always have each other.

12. Remember the long-term rewards of having siblings. Siblings help kids learn to negotiate, compromise, solve problems and recognize other people’s needs. They help them learn how to tolerate painful emotions, because fights with a sibling can be harsher than fights with friends. Younger siblings have someone to look up to and learn from constantly, while older siblings get to experience nurturing, teaching and leading. Siblings learn to share and to enjoy sharing, and they will have companionship and a close friend for life, even when we, their parents, are gone. Shared histories, and a shared childhood, create a bond unlike any other they will have.

What have you found to be helpful in reducing or addressing sibling rivalry? What was your experience with your own siblings? Is there anything your parents did in raising you and your siblings that helped build your relationships? Anything you wish they had done differently?

Amy x

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