What Parents Can Do to Reduce Sibling Rivalry

The sibling rivalry began the minute my sister came home from the hospital. Barely three years old, I welcomed my sister by throwing a candy wrapper in her face, stomping out of the room, and saying, "I don't like her. Take her back." In retrospect, this incident seems humorous when viewed through the lens of adulthood. But make no mistake. Sibling rivalry can create short- and long-term problems for children and parents alike, influencing personality development and relationships for many years to come.

Sibling rivalry--the jealousy and competition between siblings for their parents' love, affection, and attention--is nothing new. In fact, the first recorded murder in history stems from the rivalry between two brothers--Cain and Abel--culminating in Cain's brutal murder of his brother, Abel (Genesis 4). We can only imagine the heartache his parents felt and the heavy load of guilt Cain carried throughout his life.

What can parents do to reduce sibling rivalry and conflict? Experts say parents can do several things to help their children get along.

Recognize and affirm each child's unique strengths, gifts, and abilities.

No two children are exactly alike. Encourage and affirm differences in your children by providing opportunities for each child to develop individual talents and interests.

Never compare your children.

Avoid saying things like, "Can't you behave like your brother, Jeremy?" "See how hard Eric works at school? Why can't you be more like Eric?" "Scott cleaned his room this morning. Why can't you?"

Set aside one-on-one time with each child.

Parents should set aside regular, one-on-one time with each child on a regular basis. Some parents make it a habit of taking each of their children out to lunch or breakfast at an inexpensive restaurant once a week or a few times a month. This allows time for intimate conversation and makes each child feel "special."

When conflict or fights occur, deal out the same consequences to all children involved.

It doesn't matter who started the fight because it takes two to engage in conflict. Hold each child equally responsible. This teaches children at a young age that although we are not responsible for others' behavior, we are responsible for how we respond.

Do not tolerate destructive or abusive behavior between children.

Let children know early on that name-calling, bullying, punching, scratching, biting, and other similar behaviors are "off limits."

Avoid playing favorites.

Nothing creates more conflict among siblings than parents who favor one child over the others. Be aware of your natural proclivities and quickly put an end to favoritism in your home.

Develop clear-cut rules and responsibilities.

Define each child's role and responsibilities in the home. Some parents use tools, such as a chart on the refrigerator, which leave no question whose turn it is to feed the dog or take out the trash. This reduces conflict significantly.

Teach your children conflict-resolution skills.

Do not try to teach children healthy conflict-resolution skills in the midst of an argument. Emotions will get in the way. Instead, when children are calm and most receptive, teach them how to compromise, share, divide things fairly, and respect each other. Give them the tools they need to succeed.

Model healthy communication and conflict-resolution skills.

If you and your spouse resolve differences through yelling, demanding, or saying hurtful things to each other, don't be surprised when your children follow in your footsteps. Your actions speak louder than your words.

Allow children to have their own possessions.

While children must learn to share, experts recommend allowing children to have one or two "special" toys that are theirs alone. This teaches children healthy boundaries.

Parents play a key role in teaching children how to get along with each other and in reducing conflict in the home. By giving children healthy guidelines and boundaries, they can develop healthy, satisfying relationships with their siblings that carry over into adulthood.

Mary J. Yerkes