Q: I have two daughters, ages 6 and 9. The sibling rivalry has become unbearable for my husband and I. What are some things we can do to strengthen their relationship? – Melissa, Chandler

A: As frustrating as it is for parents, sibling rivalry has existed as long as, well, there have been siblings.
A certain amount of conflict is common, if not inevitable, among siblings as they sort out their individual identities, monitor that are treated fairly and equally (a great preoccupation of school-age children), learn to manage intense uncomfortable feelings, such as competitiveness and jealousy, and try to secure the time and attention they want and need from their parents.

A number of things may be helpful to young siblings.

Start with a little self-reflection. Ask yourself honestly if you or other important caregivers lean in the direction of one child over the other. Children are very tuned in to differences in parental treatment and are apt to interpret those differences as signs of favoritism. This only causes more resentment among siblings.

What are your children learning? When they are at each other’s throats, what do they do to resolve their conflicts? When you are upset with them or another family member, how does that get communicated? How does it get resolved? Becoming a role model is how you resolve conflict both verbally and physically plays a big part in how they will resolve their issues

Finally, ask yourself if you are regularly spending some time with each child separately. Even just 15 or 20 minutes a day gives children a feeling of the special attention they need and helps parents focus more specifically on their children as unique individuals.

When children do fight, it is useful to give them some practice sorting it out for themselves, rather than jumping in quickly to settle things. Staying on the sidelines for a bit should not be confused with, or communicated as, your lack of caring. Instead, it can be framed as your sincere faith that they can solve some problems on their own.

If you find your children unable to work out a fight on their own, your assistance as a “consultant” can be very useful. Help one child give her perspective on the problem and the other to listen and summarize what was said before responding. Then do the same for the other child. You can make comments about how hard it is to disagree, how you can understand the situation they are in and why each child may have their own points about being right. Once they feel you understand, you can guide them in figuring out what to do. If neither can get exactly what she wants, how can they both get some of what they want? This is a way of building the skill of compromise.

If situations require greater assistance from an adult or involve constant defiance no matter what the consequences, assistance from a professional may also be an option. Short of that though, children can learn a great deal about negotiation, compromise and problem-solving from relationships with siblings, with the support of the adults who love them. n

Alison Steier, Ph.D., is clinical director of Mental Health Services at Southwest Human Development, Arizona’s largest nonprofit dedicated to early childhood development. Learn more at www.swhd.org.

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