What can I do to keep issues with sibling rivalry from destroying my family?

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Answered by: Tiffany, An Expert in the Child Parenting Category

Siblings are supposed to be in a constant power struggle and competition, right? Wrong. issues with sibling rivalry in a family is normal, but it doesn't have to rule the relationship. When people meet my children (on a good day!) and watch their interaction, I often hear "Wow, your kids have a great relationship. Mine fight constantly."

Well mine bicker, too. But they can always depend on each other and they know that. About twice a month, my teenage daughter posts on her Facebook that her 10 year old brother is her best friend, and my 10 year old will tell anyone who will listen “Everything I am is because of my sister!”. And I cannot even accurately describe their reactions when an “outsider” says something critical of either of them in earshot of the other!

What can you do to help your kids get to a place beyond sibling rivalry and to a place where they genuinely care about each other? To a point where issues with sibling rivalry in a family isn't tearing your family apart?

1. Begin at the beginning. When your second child is born, give the older child some regular, daily responsibilities for the baby. Use language constantly that recognizes her contribution to caring for the baby.

"What a lucky little boy he is to have a sister like you!"

"What a good helper you are in taking care of your little brother".

Tell other people what a helpful and loving big sister she is and make sure she hears you saying it. Repeat this with all subsequent children. I do caution against creating resentment in children of "always having to take care of the baby". I’m not talking about just “chores”. Your children are your responsibility. Your goal here is not to escape your own responsibilities, but to create an attitude of “we’re all in this together”. (see tip #4)

2. Teach them from Day One that they will always have each other and need to be able to count on that. Verbalize the love between them so that it becomes a living thing. Put a lot of emphasis on the times when they were there for each other. Some reaffirming language to use frequently:

* "You guys always have each other's backs...that’s awesome!"

* "Remember, there will be times in life when all we have is each other."

* “You can always count on your brother when there's a spider in the bathroom!.”

* “Great job on that reading score! Be sure and thank your sister for helping you learn to love reading. She read to you so much when you were a toddler.”

* "Remember when you had your first broken heart and your brother came in and sang "love of my life" to you?"

Before you know it, they’ll be using this kind of language themselves.

3. Find specific tasks that they can do to help each other. Young children probably can't change diapers (if they're teenagers they certainly can), and use appropriate caution with tasks such as bathing. But even a child as young as four can watch the baby every day while you take a bath or fix dinner.

She can also be the one in charge of always picking up the baby's toy when he drops it, reading and singing to him, choosing what he’ll wear that day, brushing his hair, or putting away his supplies (diapers, wipes, etc...) when you come home from shopping. Avoid buying into the popular theory of "letting kids be kids" with no responsibilities to any other member of the family. Children certainly do need time to just be a kid, but every member of the family has responsibility for every other member of the family, and children need to learn this from the beginning. Try to imagine Laura Ingalls Wilder or her sister Mary saying "but Mom, I just want to be a kid...." and how well THAT would have gone over.

4. Being responsible for each other is a two way street. It’s not just about making the older child the one responsible for the younger one(s). When younger children are old enough to take on some responsibilities, teach them to help the older sibling(s). For example, when an older sibling is away for a sleepover or an activity, the younger child can take on the older child's chores. When an older child is doing the dishes, the younger child needs to be there drying them. My favorite example: my little boy kills spiders for his sister. Crazy, I know! But when she yells his name across the house in “that tone”, he KNOWS and yells back “don’t worry, Sissy, I’m coming!”

5. Avoid “payment” for basic family responsibilities. Paying an older sibling for babysitting is acceptable in some cases (example: every day in the summer), but attaching a reward to family responsibilities sets an undesirable precedent. Allowing an older sibling to pay a younger sibling to help with her chores while she is at a friend’s house, for example, is undesirable. He has (ideally) been taught to be happy to help his sister.

So all of this sounds great for a young couple starting a family. But what if you didn’t begin at the beginning and your children are teenagers who appear to hate each other? Trust me, they probably don’t. There is a love amongst most groups of siblings that will show itself when it’s needed.

* Build on that (hidden) love by doing team-building activities as a family. Do a Google search and see what you find. Team building works in the business world and it can work at home too.

* Be an example to them. Most of what our children learn about how to treat others comes from watching how WE treat others.

* When you do family activities, don’t always allow them to bring friends. Do some things just as a family.

* Plan a huge family project. Cleaning out a shed. Organizing photos or recipes. Put them in charge of it and say “I’m the Project Manager, and you guys are the workers. Let me know what you need from me, but it’s ultimately your job. Get it done and report to me your progress at the end of the day”. Expect delays. They’re learning. Have a simple reward planned for the team when it’s done. Dinner out, ice cream, a movie, etc...

* Begin the affirming language immediately and don’t stop. They may look at you like you’ve “lost it” at first, but keep doing it anyhow and they’ll start to buy in eventually.

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