Quelling sibling rivalry

Don’t you dare call Vicki Panaccione’s brother a geek.

“Only I can call him a geek,” exclaims Panaccione, better known as the parenting professor and founder of the Better Parenting Institute, a resource for parents who want to master the art of parenting. Her 25-year career as a child psychologist has given her an insider’s look at the sibling bond and the rivalries that go along with it.

“The sibling relationship is often a conglomeration of feelings … full of intense loathing and fierce loyalty at the very same time,” Panaccione says.

But what can parents do when those ties become strained or frayed at the edges? Panaccione offers the scoop on strengthening those ties for a lifetime—or at least for an afternoon of peace and quiet.

Q What is so special about the sibling relationship?

AThere is nothing else like it, she says."Siblings‘get it’ in a way no one else possibly can—because they live it, breathe it and develop as a result of it.‘You know how mom is …’ has a much deeper, connected meaning with a sib than with anyone else. And, just watch the older sibling—who was talking about how annoying their younger sib is just moments before—spring into action if someone says something negative about or tries to harm that very same sib in any way.”

QWhen—and why—does sibling rivalry typically begin?

A”The sibling relationship is inherently set up for conflict and rivalry. Children want to feel important and special. This is crucial for them to develop a sense of security and safety. With the introduction of a new child into the family, a child can begin to feel that he is being replaced or the other child is more important to his parents. This is a breeding ground for jealousy and rivalry. Pure and simple. Sometimes sibling rivalry begins before the second child is even born. Typically, however, it begins when the younger child turns 2, when children are both old enough to want the same thing and feel the sibling is an obstacle to getting it.‘It’ can be an object, attention, space, the front seat of the car, etc.”

Q How does the sibling relationship change as kids get older?

A"As siblings reach different developmental stages, their needs change; this can significantly affect how they view and relate to each other.” For instance, she says:

n Children a few years apart may play and share well during certain phases of their development. However, the one-, two- or three-year age gap that seemed irrelevant last week can suddenly become significant as the older child moves into a different developmental stage.

n Younger kids tend to view their siblings as obstacles. This is the stage where they are vying for the same desired outcome or trying to express their own individuality.

n Tweens and teens may see the younger ones as impositions or intruders. Typically, this occurs when the older child is expected to help with childcare. This can create resentment in the older child, which will, in turn, fuel the rivalry, she says. Or, the younger child may try to emulate the older sibling, following them around, wanting to do what they do, etc. Although flattery may be the greatest form of compliment, older siblings do not think so.

Q How should parents handle sibling rivalry? 

A”The job of parents in dealing with sibling rivalry is not to solve problems, but to teach children how to solve problems for themselves. This is the upside to sibling rivalry. Children have an opportunity … to learn to negotiate relationships. They learn to compromise, negotiate, problem-solve, control aggression and develop coping strategies. They can learn to cooperate, treat others fairly, tolerate the presence of others (even if they don’t like them), learn to respect other people’s possessions and privacy, and yes, even share. But be aware of any child who gives in all the time, she says. This is not teaching good problem-solving, only conflict avoidance. Compromises mean that both parties have to give a little.”

Five tips for dealing with sibling rivalry

1 Be careful not to fuel the fire. Parents can inadvertently make the situation worse by comparing one child to the other, putting too many childcare responsibilities on them or choosing one child’s version of the tale over another’s.

2Don’t allow your kids to fight in front of you. As long as you feel no serious harm will occur, walk away and let them work it out. Set firm rules about being physical with each other and enforce them.

3Be careful not to take sides and don’t reinforce the behavior by paying attention to it. If you must intervene, then everyone should reap the consequences.

4Don’t try to make everything equal. Children need to learn that they can’t always be the center of attention, get the very same things, etc.

5Allow each child to have possessions they don’t have to share, as well as private time and space.

Melissa Blake is a freelance writer living in DeKalb.

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