On Psychology

Jewish World Review Oct. 8, 1998 /18 Tishrei, 5759


Dr. Wade Horn

Sibling Conflict Not A Scream For Parents

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: I am the father of two children, ages 10 and 13. Although they are both basically good kids, at home they are constantly arguing and bickering with each other. Is there anything I can do to help them get along?

A: Almost 80% of us grow up with at least one brother or sister, making sibling relationships among the most important any of us will ever have. When things go well, siblings provide us with support, encouragement, friendship, and camaraderie. And not just when we are children, but also when we are adults. Indeed, adult happiness is largely dependent upon a supportive network of extended family, the seeds for which are sown in the day to day interactions of siblings during childhood.

Unfortunately, sibling relationships are also among the most competitive we will ever experience. Ever since Cain and Able, siblings have been competing with each other for status, for power, and for affection. And like Cain and Able, sibling rivalry can turn violent. According to research reported at a recent meeting of the American Psychological Association, 65 percent of a sample of 202 college students said they had experienced some sibling physical abuse, resulting in injuries to 17 percent of that group, with 4 percent requiring a visit to a physician.

Sibling rivalry can be an enormous source of frustration for parents. Being exposed to arguing, complaining, whining, and tattling is never pleasant. It is even less so when it occurs within the context of the family, a place where we are suppose to encounter respite, not bitterness.

Fortunately, there are ways to effectively managing sibling rivalry.

Here's what you can do:

Don't compare. One of the primary reasons for sibling rivalry is plain old-fashioned jealousy. Comparing one sibling with another in their presence only builds resentment and encourages further competition. If you must make comparisons, do so in private, and even then only with your spouse.

Be clear on what are acceptable, and what are unacceptable, ways of expressing disagreements. Expecting siblings never to have disagreements is like expecting the sun will someday rise in the west; in other words, it ain't gonna happen. The key to managing sibling rivalry is not to demand its absence, but to set its ground rules. Be clear on what you will allow, such as expressing verbally (and in a moderate tone) one's dissatisfaction or frustration with the behavior of the other, as well as what you will not allow, such as hitting or name calling.

Don't be too quick to step in. When your kids argue or experience conflict, give them some time to figure out how best to resolve the conflict on their own. This way, sibling conflict becomes a potential learning experience in how to manage and resolve disagreements. If you jump in too quickly, they will come to rely on you to resolve all their conflicts for them.

Don't try to play detective. If you must step in, don't try to establish blame. This will only intensify the conflict and build resentment in the one who is "blamed."

Since it is unlikely in sibling conflict that either is truly blameless, it is better to hold both accountable when conflict and arguments arise. In our house, when the arguments of my two teenage daughters start to spiral out of control, I use the occasion to dish out household chores. Not only does this separate the combatants, but I get some much needed help around the house!

Provide lots of compliments. The best intervention is prevention. One way to prevent, or at least minimize, sibling rivalry is to give each child lots of attention for things that each does uniquely well. Just be careful that praise for one child, is not received as criticism of the other. For example, do not say, "Gee Christen, you really did a good job on your math homework. Caroline, how come you can't do as good a job on your math homework?" Especially be on the lookout for opportunities to praise sibling cooperation and effective conflict resolution.

Model what you preach. If you and your spouse model positive ways of handling your own conflicts and arguments, your kids will be more likely to do so as well.

Remember: the best sermon is a good example.

Don't automatically blame the older child. Many parents view younger kids as "victims" in sibling conflict. While it is reasonable to expect more mature behavior from older children, it is important to keep in mind that younger siblings often have developed well-honed skills for irritating their older counterparts. So when you do discipline, discipline both.

Don't respond to tattling. Responding to tattling only begets more tattling. So, unless you actually enjoy hearing your kids whine and complain about each other, set a "no tattling" rule. With one exception: dangerous behavior. The prime directive in every household should be safety.

Insist that siblings respect each other's personal belongings. Establish a household rule that no one should ever take anything that belongs to someone else without their permission. Everyone deserves to have their personal property respected and to have a certain amount of personal "space." Even when siblings share a bedroom, make sure it is clear what is community property and space, and what is not.

Sibling rivalry has always been with us, and always will. Having grown up in a family with five brothers and a sister, I know only too well how intense sibling competition can be. And as the parent of two teenagers relatively close in age, I know all too well the exasperation parents feel when hearing the screams of two teenagers going at one another.

But just because a certain amount of sibling rivalry is inevitable doesn't mean that parents can not manage it. In fact, effective management of sibling rivalry can turn what is frequently a difficult, frustrating, and painful experience into an opportunity for learning effective conflict resolution skills and the value of cooperation over raw competition.

And take heart. Despite the countless and often heated conflict I had with my brothers when growing up, today I count among my closest friends the two I fought with the most when I was a child. Have confidence that someday, the same can be true of those screaming kids in your household.


JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR

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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn