Sibling Rivalry: when it's not all fun and games

If left unchecked, sibling rivalry can result in lifelong issues
By Nick Dall

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Workshop facilitator at The Parent Centre in Wynberg, Pat Coombe, says “you get parents who say ‘Oh, my kids never fight’, but I don’t believe them,” and she should know, having worked with children (and their parents) for 41 years. “Parents who say this are probably just being unobservant ... fighting doesn’t have to be physical.”
 
It's not fair!
That being said, sibling rivalry is completely normal and it really doesn’t have to be a problem either. Small disagreements are a part of life and they teach you how to reach a rational solution. Sibling rivalry is dangerous when the same kid always loses, especially if there is physical abuse involved. “The crux of sibling rivalry is jealousy ... of possessions, achievements or time,” Coombe explains, “And it’s all about perception. If a child feels he’s getting the thin edge of the wedge this is all that matters.”
 
The children who suffer most with sibling rivalry are those with low self-esteem. “Children who are full of real confidence and compassion can speak out when something is not right,” says Coombe, “their inherent self-esteem prevents them from overreacting.” Parents can often be the root of a child’s poor self-esteem, as physical or verbal punishment diminishes self-confidence. To reduce sibling rivalry, the parents have to actively build confidence in their children, but – and this is where things can get complicated – to do so, the parents themselves need to have good self-esteem.
 
Kerry Skinner, an educational psychologist based in Sandton, views sibling rivalry in very much the same way. “There are so many benefits to the sibling relationship,” says Skinner, “disagreements can be used as an opportunity to learn life lessons. But if a disagreement escalates, then you as a parent have to intervene.”
 
Intervening is easy, doing it sensitively not so much. Saying something like “This is such a silly thing to fight about,” belittles both children’s feelings and does nothing to diffuse the situation. Regardless of what Barney has to say on the matter, kids cannot share and adults aren’t too good at it either ... how would you feel if your spouse commandeered your smartphone or your favourite coffee mug?
 
Both experts offer very similar advice for conflict resolution. “Put an arm around each child,” says Coombe “and talk about the issue calmly and maturely. Look each child in the eye and listen to what they have to say.” When a compromise doesn’t seem likely, Skinner suggests diffusing the situation: “It looks like you’re having trouble deciding who can play with that toy, so it’ll be easiest for me to take it away.”
 
“Absolute equality is impossible,” continues Skinner. “Parents who try to bend over backwards to be fair, create frustration for everyone. Each child experiences affection differently, needs different things and is a different person.”
 
What’s really going on?
When it comes to sibling rivalry, prevention is most definitely better than cure. If you’re struggling with sibling rivalry at the moment, it’s quite likely some of the following factors are at play:
  • Tension between parents is picked up by kids and mimicked. If you and your spouse can’t solve disagreements maturely, you can’t expect your kids to know how to do so. Flare-ups often occur at the end of the day when kids (and parents!) are feeling hungry, tired and neglected. If this is a pattern in your household, consider changing your routine.
  • There are phases in your life when sibling rivalry will be more prevalent. The birth of a baby, moving house, or starting at a new school. Use positive language and reinforcement to help your kids through these periods.
  • Boys tend to have more rivalry than girls, and same sex siblings generally fight more – especially if the age gap is small. The size of the family and a child’s position in the family both make a big difference. You can’t really change any of this, but you can empathise with each child. Thinking back to your own childhood often helps.
  • Competitive families light the fire of sibling rivalry. If winning (academic, sporting or otherwise) becomes important, you can expect problems because there’s no way everyone will reach the same standards.
  • Children are always listening. Comparing (“Amy could already swim when she was your age”) and labelling kids (“She’s the sporty/shy one”) is never a good idea as it sows the seed of jealousy.
  • A child who is wheelchair-bound and one who’s a Springbok gymnast may seem very different, but they can both have a negative impact on their families as their siblings resent the extra attention heaped on them. It’s not uncommon (or abnormal) for a sibling to say “I wish I could be the one in the wheelchair.”
 
What you can do
The single most important thing is to treat every child as an individual. “A beautiful garden is made up of delicate daisies and hardy aloes, wise old oak trees and sweet-smelling jasmine,” says Coombe, “you wouldn’t get angry with a daisy for not growing into an oak tree and the same should go for parenting. Lots of South African parents seem to want their children to be oak trees.”
 
Families where both parents work long hours can be at a disadvantage when they get home in the evening and everyone is tired. “If you don’t spend time with your children, you don’t know them,” says Coombe, “instead of filling weekends with hundreds of outings and engagements, try to focus on spending time at home doing normal things as a family.”
 
“Life isn’t fair,” says Skinner, “but we all have our needs and they have to be met differently. Instead of giving equal amounts of things or time, give according to individual need. Instead of showing equal love, love each child uniquely. If a child’s ‘love tank’ is feeling empty, they will perceive parental attention to another child as threatening and this will promote jealousy.”
 
Nobody’s perfect
It’s also important to remind yourself that it’s OK to make mistakes. “Parents should give themselves time out when they feel they can’t regulate themselves,” says Skinner. “If you do overstep, talk to your kids about it and apologise. Practice what you preach and use your mistake as an opportunity for growth.”
 
“Possibly the greatest thing you can do with your life,” says Coombe, “is to really enjoy being a parent. The fun and pleasure of being a parent is amazing. Look at your children with soft eyes, and the rest will fall into place. It’s never too late to become a better parent, and there’s always something more you could learn.”
 
Languages of love
Gary Chapman’s bestseller, The 5 Love Languages of Children, identifies five ways that children speak and understand emotional love. Every child has a primary love language, a way in which he or she understands a parent’s love best.
 
Words of affirmation: In communicating love, words are powerful. Words of affection and endearment, words of praise and encouragement, and words that give positive guidance.
 
Quality time: Quality time means giving a child your undivided attention. It makes the child feel that he is the most important person in the world.
 
Receiving gifts: Most children respond positively to gifts, but for some, receiving gifts is their primary love language.
 
Physical touch: For children who understand this love language, physical touch will communicate love more deeply than words.
 
Acts of service: When that child asks you to fix a bicycle or mend a doll’s dress, they do not merely want to get a task done; they are crying for emotional love.
 
 
Get in touch
The Parent Centre: www.theparentcentre.org.za (Cape Town)
Focus on the Family: www.safamily.co.za (Durban)
The Family Life Centre: www.familylife.co.za (Joburg)
Famsa Pretoria: www.famsapretoria.co.za (Pretoria)

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