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Jinnae Anderson: The sibling rivalry parenting predicament

Jinnae Anderson
Columnist
Some sibling rivalry is normal and to be expected. Developmental changes can create a constant source of sibling rivalry, as can your kids’ natural temperaments of competitiveness or feistiness. All these things shift as they get older and learn more self-regulation.
Metro Newspaper Service

When you thought about being a parent, did you even once imagine living in a constant battlefield, or playing referee most of the time? Of course not! The aim of this article is to help you to remove your armor and retire your striped shirt…at least, most of the time. Sibling rivalry is a tough issue, so read on for a few tools and strategies to help you approach this parental predicament in a way that works for everyone.

Be proactive

First, before sibling rivalry even starts to brew, do your best to nip it in the bud. What is the calmest part of the day in your house? Set a family meeting for that time of day with the objective of discussing the values in your family. For example, a family value that’s often cited in our house is, “In this family, we love and support each other.” Make sure you have everyone’s agreement on a value and then brainstorm: How can you actually put this value into place? Grab a large piece of paper and write down the value, listing an agreed-upon reward for when it’s demonstrated and a consequence for off-track behaviors, such as not taking turns with a desired toy.

Choose no more than five or six values; more than that gets overwhelming. Post your Family Values page where everyone can see it and refer to it. Having your entire family know, and agree to, family values and ground rules is a great start to anticipating and heading off sibling rivalry.



When and how to intervene

When things start simmering, try first ignoring it. It’s best not to reward negative behavior with your attention, and there’s no sense exhausting yourself trying to work out every little squabble. When you ignore the simmer, you give your kids an opportunity to practice the important life skills of conflict resolution and working things out themselves. If the simmer starts burning a little more brightly, you can try a simple warning such as, “Oh dear. If that toy is causing a problem, it will have to go away.” If the fussing continues, follow through with empathy: Remove the toy with an expression of sadness that your kids are losing their fun.

Choose your battles. When things escalate to an unbearable intensity or you’re worried about physical or relationship harm, it’s probably time to step in — but don’t even try to address the problem while emotions are high (including yours). One of my mantras is: Parent when it’s calm. To help everyone relax, the object involved may need to be removed. Children may need to be separated for a time, or you can all practice some deep breathing together.



Once things have settled, sit everyone down and listen. Encourage your children to use “I feel” statements as they share their position. Don’t take sides, don’t interrupt, and don’t depend on what you saw to decide who is right. Listen respectfully to each child’s version of what happened. You’re more likely to find a cooperative solution if your children feel heard. If aggressive behavior erupts during this time, repeat that violence is not acceptable and tell them the only way to work it out is to use their words.

Finding a solution

Teach your kids problem-solving skills like negotiation and compromise, and encourage them to use those skills to find solutions. Preschool-aged kids are still learning to use their words, especially when they’re angry or frustrated, so your guidance will be more needed if your kid/s are five and under. Elementary-school aged and older children are developmentally able to find solutions that could work reasonably well for all sides. If this can’t be done, you can try making a few suggestions and ask how each would work for them.

In a situation like this, remember that fairness doesn’t always mean equal. Older kids get to go to bed later, and different toys and games satisfy different developmental interests. Solutions can reflect this kind of fairness.

If there is an obvious culprit, give a consequence in private. Don’t spark more competition and conflict by shaming one child in front of their siblings.

If there is no solution in sight and it seems that it took two or more to tango, it’s time for the all-in-this-together approach. This could mean the toy or game is taken away until you feel ready for them to try again. You can be ready when you see your kids able to share and get along better in general. Or you can give them some “bonding opportunities,” where they tackle a project or do some chores together in order to learn to get along.

There is hope

Lastly, know that some sibling rivalry is normal and to be expected. Developmental changes can create a constant source of sibling rivalry, as can your kids’ natural temperaments of competitiveness or feistiness. All these things shift as they get older and learn more self-regulation. Do what you can, and take good care of yourself when you can’t fix it.

In my case, I despised my younger brother and fought with him constantly through our childhood years. Everything changed one evening when he was in high school and I came home from college for a visit. Somehow we started talking … and didn’t stop until the wee hours of the morning! Our outlooks on life, senses of humor and heart connection were undeniable, and I realized I’d just made an amazing, wise, and adventurous new friend. Even now, decades later, we connect every few days to share our lives and our hearts. Trust me: If my brother and I can make it through, your kids can too.

Jinnae Anderson is the Parenting Specialist for the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools. She teaches an 8-week Nurturing Parenting series, tentatively in-person starting this fall. For more information, contact Jinnae at janderson@nevco.org or 530-238-5608

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