By Erin Brown Conroy, M.A.
Jealousy, competition, favoritism, difficulty sharing – To some extent, each of these branches of the tree of "sibling rivalry" grow in every family. "Where two or more children are gathered in one family, there contention will be also" isn't in the bible, but it sure seems like it could be!
Brothers and sisters don't have to be absolute arch enemies to be dealing with sibling rivalry; in fact, bits and pieces of sibling rivalry pop out every day as normal behavior. What isn't normal is when sibling rivalry interferes with or breaks down relationships. What's important is how we, as parents, along with our children, deal with sibling rivalry.
Ways to Help Your Child
It's important that we teach our children that sibling rivalry is normal. Since we're all individuals, unique and different, we won't get along with everyone. We especially won't get along all the time with those closest to us. Close relationships bring challenges; challenges dig up emotions like anger, sadness, and frustration. Telling our child that everyone feels the same feelings of anger, sadness, and frustration gives our child a healthy view of reality. If we begin with identifying feelings as normal, then we can learn to respond to our feelings in healthy ways.
The number one feeling associated with sibling rivalry is anger. The problem isn't the fact that our child gets angry when bumping into sibling rivalry issues. The problem is in the fact that our child doesn't know what to do with the feelings of anger. If we start by asking our child the question, "What can we do when we're angry with our brother or sister?" and then finish by giving answers and tools to our child, we'll hit the issue of sibling rivalry at its root.
Tools for Our Child
A valuable tool to hand our child is the knowledge of the power of choice. No one can make us do anything. We have a choice in how we respond to anger and the things that "make us angry." We all have an imaginary teeter-totter within us, balancing logical thoughts on one side and emotional feelings on the other. After your child becomes aware of his or her feelings, teach your child that he or she can balance feelings with clear thinking. We want to feel our feelings, because they're a normal part of who we are; we also want to act toward others in a way that we're proud of. That comes from our thoughts having authority and influence over our feelings.
Another tool for our child is knowing three ways to respond to anger – and how to choose what's best. The first way to respond – physically, like pushing or hitting – is never a good choice. Physical responses often pop into a child's mind and fists first, but we need to teach our children early in their lives that hurting someone is a bad choice.
Using appropriate words is always a good way to respond. When we teach our children to use good words – words that work for us as opposed to words that work against us – then we teach our child to be a problem solver. Teach your child that not all words are good words. Sometimes our words can be as hurtful as physical blows, and we need to keep our words within the boundaries of telling a brother or sister how we feel. Teach your child to say, "I feel angry! I don't like this! We need to change the way things are happening!" Speaking words that identify feelings releases those feelings in a healthy way and begins the child on the road to a problem solving perspective.
Taking time out to respond to a brother or sister can be a really good way to ensure that what we do or say is helpful, not hurtful. Sometimes when we're angry, our feelings "run away with us," or we hold our feelings in, only to burst out onto others later. When we walk away from angry situations – with the purpose of calming ourselves and mending the problem – we help to smooth the stormy feelings wrapped up in the rivalry. We can teach our children to walk away nicely – not with aggressive gestures and the words "I can't stand you! You're so stupid!" Walk away with, "I care about you, but I feel bad! I need to take a break to feel better so that we can talk this through."
Be a "Mender," not a "Breaker"
Teaching our children to be menders begins with ourselves. Our healthy (or unhealthy) responses to conflict spill into our children's lives, embedding within them patterns that either "mend" and help, or "break" and create difficulty for our child's future.
Feelings and emotions – even negative ones – are great gifts that enrich our lives. Part of "growing up" is learning how to deal with emotions constructively. Thank God we all have the inner ability to balance difficult emotions with rational thoughts. Balancing feelings and thoughts builds relationships instead of tearing them down. Sibling rivalry won't go away; but teaching our children the tools of inner balance helps to smooth sibling rivalry's impact on relationships, turning brothers and sisters into lifelong friends.
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