Sibling Rivalry What Can Parents Do? Part 1

At dinner each night, Alyson O’Mahoney’s two children, Ryan, age 6, and Emily, age 2, sit in each other’s seats at the table. And each night, this action erupts into battle.
“He hit me,” Emily cries.

“She pushed me,” Ryan complains before crying and stomping out of the room.

“They have the same seats each night, but it seems like they deliberately have to sit in each other’s chairs first,” said their bemused mom, who lives with them in Bedford Corners, NY. “And if it’s not that, it’s a dispute about toys. Whatever she’s playing with, he wants, and vice versa. I know it’s attention-getting behavior, but I find myself getting involved more than I should.”

Sound familiar? It seems that you can’t put two or more siblings in the same room without a dispute breaking out at some point — and the event can be as tension-producing for parents as the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard. Well, relax, if you can, because experts say it’s a normal part of childhood.

“Jealousy between siblings is a fact of life when you bring a second child into a home,” said Pamela Sorensen, Ph.D., director of the Under Fives Study Center at the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville. “Each child needs to be sure he’s important to you,” Sorensen said. “Think about how you’d feel if your partner told you he loved you so much, he was going to get another wife just like you.”

In general, the good news about sibling rivalry is that it’s a valuable learning experience for your children. Beth Manke, Ph.D., an assistant psychology professor at the University of Houston and a widely published expert on sibling rivalry, said that it teaches children how to get along with others they are thrown together with, like classmates and coworkers, and it forces them to learn compromise.

“Also, sibling conflicts don’t usually mean anything to kids. Most of the time, they’re fighting about personal items like their bedrooms and shared items, like the TV,” Manke said. “They’re not fighting about their parents. To them, it’s all about fairness and the day-to-day hassles. Most siblings grow up to be a wonderful source of social support for each other,” she said.

Normal experience or not, Sorensen says, parents still need to validate their children’s feelings about each other.

“When parents don’t feel compassion for their child’s feelings about their sibling and help them to deal with their jealousy, the child’s feelings go unrecognized,” Sorensen said.

“He can begin to feel that his feelings are so horrible that they can’t be talked about because his parents can’t love someone who feels this way,” Sorensen said.

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