How to Stop Sibling Rivalry

October 10, 2017

First there’s the screaming fit over who gets to put the key in the front-door lock. Then there’s the shoving over whose turn it is to sit on the window bench. Finally there’s the Disney dance party turned WWE cage match, which ends with my 7-year-old, Blair, shouting, “Drew started it!” and my 5-year-old, Drew, screaming, “Blair started it!” and me yelling, “Stop yelling!”

I turn to my husband, Thad, and state the obvious: “We have lost control of the asylum.”

Our kids fight every single day — in the car, in the bathroom, in the supermarket. These two little girls, who barely a year ago were as close as Kate and Pippa, now feud like Kardashians. Far too much of our precious family time is spent negotiating truces. Yet nothing changes. The next morning, the battle hymn plays and, just like that, they’re off to the front lines again.

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Of course, it’s comforting to know we aren’t the only ones whose kids spar. A University of Illinois study found that siblings ages 3 to 9 typically have arguments several times an hour. Whether you have girls, boys, or a mix doesn’t matter. Most siblings squabble.

While it’s true that disagreements can help sisters and brothers hone social skills such as negotiation and compromise, there is a downside: Frequent, intensive fighting heightens kids’ risk of depression and anxiety and can lower their self-esteem. Researchers have found that battling siblings are more likely to engage in delinquent behaviors, including drug use, as adults.

That puts a new perspective on my girls’ latest scuffle of the day (over the ownership of a legless Monster High doll). I’m seriously worried: I can’t deal with another 15 years of being a referee, and I don’t want my girls to grow up to be bickering, sniping, it’s-not-fair-ing, I-hate-you-ing sisters.

It’s a real possibility, though. The way your kids interact early on tends to stay consistent as they get older, according to Laurie Kramer, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She developed More Fun With Sisters and Brothers, a researched-based program in which 4- to 8-year-olds learn to resolve differences and manage their emotions.

The good news: “You can change the pattern of fighting among your kids,” says Dr. Kramer. But you have to be willing to put in the work.

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Help your kids become team players.

Preventing fights from flaring up in the first place is the surest way to promote harmony. Start by referring to your children as a team as often as possible (“You’re such a good cleanup crew” or “You two are quite the silly dancing duo”). This gets you in the habit of praising their positive interactions. I’ll sometimes go the other way, poking fun at them: “Your singing together sounds like chickens squawking during a fire alarm.” Not only does this make them laugh, but it also moves them to defend their Ariana Grande-like abilities to me — as a team.

“Siblings who feel like they’re working together, rather than being opponents, will naturally help each other out,” says Mark Feinberg, Ph.D., who codeveloped Penn State’s Siblings Are Special project, which teaches grade-school brothers and sisters (and their families) to play nicely. He suggests setting up situations in which your kids join forces, such as building a fort or making muffins. Stavroula Grivas, a Philadelphia-area mom, learned that strategy from her own parents.

“In order to earn playtime, my three siblings and I had to clear the table,” says Grivas. “The younger kids stacked dishes and the older ones cleared and washed them. Then we dried and put them away. Working together, it took no time at all.”

Expand their emotional vocabulary.

Lots of sibling conflicts occur because young children don’t know the proper way to express what’s bothering them. That’s why toddlers resort to biting and hitting and older kids impulsively spout statements they don’t truly mean (“I hate you!”), which can easily turn a minor argument into a big-time battle. The more words a child has to describe his feelings, the more likely he is to stay calm, notes Dr. Kramer. So if his little sister knocks over his block tower, he can tell you, “I’m angry that she ruined my project” instead of hitting or yelling at her. “It’s important to talk about emotions beyond happy, sad, and angry,” says Dr. Kramer. Expressing out loud how you feel, whether it’s “annoyed,” “disappointed,” or “confused,” will teach your kids new words to express what they’re feeling — a significant first step in learning how to manage emotions.

Rather than waiting until your kids are upset to have a discussion, take advantage of teachable moments. When we’re at the park and see another child freaking out, I always ask the girls, “What do you think he’s feeling?” When they default to describing the emotion as “mad” or “sad,” I fill in the blanks: “If my sand shovel broke, I’d be pretty frustrated, wouldn’t you?”

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