Sibling Rivalry

How to stay above the fray, when to intervene

Kim Seidel | Mar 22, 2012, 9:55 a.m.

The funny thing about sibling rivalry is that when your children argue, they're not just fighting over the TV remote or the last slice of pie. These rivalries run deeper than that.

"Ultimately, sibling arguments are not about toys or TV or who got more gifts: Siblings argue because they are trying to find their own place in the family," says Heidi Smith Luedtke, a personality psychologist who specializes in personal development, people skills and parenting. "Sibling arguments are a reflection of kids' feelings about who is more important, who has control and who gets more attention from parents.

"When kids perceive they got less time, attention or respect from parents, they fight, says Luedtke. “And when they feel less important, or 'lower' than their sibling, they fight."

Heather Kempskie, co-author of The Siblings' Busy Book, echoes Luedtke's findings. "Beneath the surface of arguments, what siblings truly are competing for is their parent's time, attention and resources," she says. "It's a battle that begins early and lasts a lifetime."

Kempskie and her co-author, Lisa Hanson, who is also her identical twin sister, found a daunting statistic: Siblings can be meaner to each other than they are to a friend by 700 percent. Yes, you read correctly--700 percent!

"That's because a sibling will be around forever, and friends wouldn't put up with that," Kempskie says.

Parents hear similar disagreements in their own homes

"Siblings often argue when they don't want to share toys or when they can't get along in their shared space - like a playroom, bedroom or living room," Luedtke says. "They may struggle over who gets to choose the next TV show or whose piece of cake is bigger. They may claim parents always take the other sibling's side or that parents always go to one child's games or that parents buy more goodies for one child than the other."

When to intervene

It may ease your mind to know that sibling rivalry, from short arguments to long shouting matches, are normal. Sibling rivalry is a natural and positive part of your children's lives. According to some experts, kids ages three to seven years old engage in some kind of conflict 3.5 times an hour, Kempskie says.

"It's normal to want to level the playing field, but parents need to help kids develop skills they need to stick up for themselves, rather than doing it all for them," Kempskie says.

As a fight escalates, parents should certainly step in when one or all of the siblings are too young to verbalize their feelings or come up with a solution to a problem. It's also important to intervene whenever the children's safety is in question, according to Kempskie.

If no safety issues are involved, parents can sit back and watch for a while, Luedtke advises. "Explain that you are confident that they can come up with a fair and reasonable solution," she says.

If nothing changes in five to 10 minutes, Luedtke says, start asking questions: "What is the problem?" (Give each child a chance to answer.); "What could you do to solve the problem?" and "What can I do to help you with that?"

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