Sibling rivalries: How parents can help keep the peace

As the third of five children, I learned to live in the middle, working both sides to my advantage and negotiating — always negotiating.

As the third of five children, I learned to live in the middle, working both sides to my advantage and negotiating — always negotiating.

Although we had a loving family, at times I remember feeling I wasn’t on my parents’ radar screen. I also remember some sibling fights coming to blows as our rivalries bubbled over into rage. Somehow we all — my parents included —survived, but it wasn’t always pretty.

Now that school is out, maybe you’re wondering how you will get through the next two to three months of sibling sniping, tattling, competition and all-out warfare.

Constantly bickering brothers and sisters can really ratchet up the stress level in the home and make road trips and family vacations anything but fun. It’s exhausting, not to mention disheartening, spending what should be quality family time playing referee.

Short of sticking your children in separate padded cells, there are some things you can do keep the melees to a minimum.

It helps to understand what gives rise to rivalries. For example, siblings of the same sex who are relatively close in age (two years apart or less) may feel the need to compete against each other because they haven’t established their own unique place in the family.

They may fight for their parents’ attention because they more alike than different. If that’s the case, it might help to reinforce each child’s individuality and separateness rather than forcing them to share space, belongings and activities.

Here are some other tips:

Notice and nurture each child’s strengths. Once they develop a more secure sense of themselves and their place in the family, they’ll be happier and more cooperative around each other.

Divide and conquer. Ever notice how well your children behave when they are alone with you or off doing different things? Increasing the number of separate activities you do with each child can be a nice break for you and for them.

Allow your children to have separate toys and belongings, and teach them to respect one another’s things. Separate rooms or spaces can help.

The same goes for activities and friends. Separate social lives can help each child develop his/her own identity.

Model cooperation and respect in your own relationships. Children tend to mimic what they see.

Don’t blame the older child because he or she “should know better.” Set clear and consistent limits for all your children and listen. Your eldest may have a legitimate reason for feeling resentful or thinking that something is unfair.

Avoid comparisons. “Why can’t you be more like your …?” can produce grudges to last a lifetime.

Talk to your children about their sibling relationships. You might point out to your eldest, for example, that the youngest imitates him because he looks up to him.

Finally, take heart in knowing that sibling competition can be healthy – consider the high-achieving Kennedy clan. A little rivalry can encourage a child to set the bar higher or work harder in finding his or her own niche.

I can thank my brothers and sisters for my negotiation skills.

‘Parenting Lifeline’ is a monthly column in Reporter newspapers by Patti Skelton-McGougan, executive director of Youth Eastside Services. Since 1968, YES has been a lifeline for kids and families, offering counseling, outreach and prevention programs to help foster strong family relationships and a safe community. For more information, call 425-747-4937 or go to