Sibling Rivalry, Controlling

Controlling Sibling Rivalry

WebMD Live Events Transcript

When brothers and sisters tease, bicker, and battle, Mom and Dad can be driven to tears. But according to Joshua Sparrow, MD, your children learn from each other and develop close, lifelong relationships. Find out how to defuse the fighting and help your children strengthen their bonds. Sparrow was our guest on May 26, 2005.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

MODERATOR:
Welcome to WebMD Live, Dr. Sparrow. Thank you for joining us today.

SPARROW:
Thanks for inviting me.

MODERATOR:
Is sibling rivalry inevitable?

SPARROW:
It sure is. There are two sides to the sibling rivalry coin. On the one side is the intensely passionate fighting and bickering that every family of more than one child is familiar with. On the other side is the equally passionate caring each feels for the other and you really can't have one without the other.

MODERATOR:
When should we, as parents, start thinking about how we are going to handle sibling rivalry when it rears its ugly head?

SPARROW:
Well, inevitably you will, as a parent, have to start facing it, preparing for it and helping your child with it before the second child has even arrived.

In fact, your child, your oldest, may know you're pregnant before you do. In the book that Dr. Brazelton and I have written on sibling rivalry, there is a story about a 3-year-old who coughed and was examined by his pediatrician. The pediatrician had the intuition that the mother might be pregnant and she of course said "No, why would I be pregnant?" A week later she called to say she was pregnant. She asked, "How did you know, doctor?" He said, "I didn't know but your son did because he coughed whenever he bent over and grunted." He had already been picking up on these changes in his mother's behavior before she realized what they meant.

MODERATOR:
What is the best way to introduce your child to a new sibling?

SPARROW:
During pregnancy, before the baby has arrived.

Be ready for your older child's questions, no matter how young that child is. We always like to believe that children are blissfully ignorant of things that might be upsetting to them. But they usually surprise us by being aware of far more than we give them credit for, even if they can't understand these things in the ways that we do. So be prepared for his questions and listen for the questions underneath his questions while you're pregnant.

The older child is bound to worry about being displaced by the new child and bound to worry about being separated from you when you go to the hospital to give birth. He may also wonder why you had to go and have another one. Was it because he wasn't good enough for you? Why did you need another one?

Listen for these questions and reassure him about who will be there when you go off to the hospital. Hopefully you have extended family or friends who can commit to being available as soon as you have to go, so that there aren't any surprises for him. Let him know that he will always be special and can always be his parent's baby when he needs to be.

"In fact, you may intensify the jealousy beyond the necessary inevitable feeling if you try to get involved in changing the way the children feel about each other."

MODERATOR:
Do the difference in the ages of your children have an impact on sibling rivalry?

SPARROW:
Sure they do. Obviously, children of different ages have available to them different ways of understanding themselves and each other and of handling their feelings and behavior.

But there is perhaps less difference than parents might expect. Parents are often surprised for example at the intensely rivalrous feelings of adolescent children when a new child enters the family, thinking that at that age surely they would have only welcoming and nurturing feelings. But nothing could be further from the truth. No matter how old the older children are, they, in addition to caring and nurturing feelings, will also feel jealous, wonder how this changes your relationship with them and need to test you to see if you still have enough to go around.

MEMBER QUESTION:
My sister and I were seven years apart. Now I have two daughters, also seven years apart. My sister and I always had problems when she wanted to do what I did and have the same privileges as I did. How do I avoid that kind of sibling jealousy in my younger child?

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SPARROW:
Well, you can't avoid sibling jealousy -- it's a natural inevitable feeling. You may do better to accept it and help each child accept those feelings than to try to change it. In fact, you may intensify the jealousy beyond the necessary inevitable feeling if you try to get involved in changing the way the children feel about each other.

Siblings who are seven years apart need different kinds of limits, privileges, responsibilities and rules -- although there are some general ones that might apply across their ages. Rather than feeling that this is unfair, you can very clearly affirm that fairness isn't about the same thing for each child, it's about what fits for each child's needs.

Certainly the younger child will feel jealous of the older child's advanced abilities, wider sphere of action and privileges, and may not be particularly comforted to hear that someday she too can enjoy all of these things. She may find more comfort in having special times with you when she gets to have you all to herself.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Our daughters shared a room and fought all the time. We split them up so they could each have their own space. Now they are constantly in one another's room and the fighting hasn't stopped. What can I do?

SPARROW:
A good deal of fighting that goes on between siblings is meant for parents' attention and meant to draw parents in - it's meant for your benefit. As a result, it may easily be amplified when you do pay attention.

Perhaps the most effective thing you can go is get out of the struggle and to say calmly and confidently when they try to draw you into it, "Look girls, I know you can work this out for yourself." Saying that holds them to a certain standard, makes it their responsibility to get there or not and it shows them a kind of respect that getting into their struggles with them doesn't.

The bottom line is to change your expectations so that your goal isn't to get rid of the fighting between the siblings. It certainly makes sense that changing their rooming arrangement would not have made a difference in that.

MEMBER QUESTION:
I am interested in how to help a 14-year-old girl. She lives with her father two weeks at a time and then with her mother two weeks at a time. Her mother now has a 6-month old girl and a new husband. The teen feels left out and doesn't get along well with the new family unit. She tells people she hates her baby sister. Should this be a concern or do we let this ride? I am the caregiver of the infant four days a week.

SPARROW:
What a great question. Blending families is so hard.

Certainly this 14-year-old's feelings are entirely predictable and natural, as hard to accept for others as they may be. What would be most helpful would be listening to her feelings and giving her permission to express them as she has been. Unless there is some sign that she is unable to control her impulses or poor judgment or has major problems in other areas, I would think that allowing her to talk openly about these feelings is the best way that you can help her.

Ultimately it will be most important if her parents and her mother's new partner can also listen to how she is feeling and accept these feelings as natural, although it may be hardest of all for them to do this, as it may seem so incongruous with the rest of their experience with the new baby. You, and they, should also be prepared for intensifying feelings like this when the baby begins to do new, exciting things that capture the parents' attention even more. Soon the baby will be crawling and demanding more attention and that's just the beginning.

I would hope that this girl can let people know how angry she is and how much she dislikes this baby. I also hope that she can feel that these feelings are understood and accepted. She may, especially if she is not pressured, over time come to make her own relationship with the baby.

I suppose in a situation where a child this age had significant problems of her own to begin with, there might be concerns about leaving her unsupervised with the baby. But that would be more likely if there already were evidence of difficulty controlling impulses, poor judgment or erratic functioning in other areas.

"I do think that whether or not life is, parents certainly ought to aspire to be fair -- and that isn't the same thing as treating each child in the same way."

MEMBER QUESTION:
It's like a war zone at my house! My three sons are constantly fighting with each other over everything . Even the noise level is too much to handle. My husband says "They're just being boys." I grew up with sisters. Is this really just the way that boys act?

SPARROW:
It would be helpful to know a little more about them and to begin with their ages, but sure, boys are usually louder, more physical, and more openly aggressive with each other.

Without knowing more, my best guess is that your husband is probably right. And if you can manage to put up with the noise level or find something to muffle your ears with, you will do best to stay out of their struggles and encourage them to work them out on their own.

If you had the sense that one of the boys was always the one who was repeatedly excluded, rejected or victimized, then there might be a different set of concerns. But more typically, when siblings struggle with each other those roles revolve. That will be your reassuring sign.

MEMBER QUESTION:
My brother and his wife try to make things "fair" all the time with their four kids, even though they vary from 10 years to 2 years old. It seems like a recipe for disaster to me. Not everyone can always have the same thing, the same size ice cream scoop or the same face time with Mom. How do you teach them that life isn't fair without sounding mean or like a drill sergeant?

SPARROW:
I guess the answer depends on what you mean by fair. I certainly agree that fair isn't the same as getting the same thing. You're right that children of different ages need different things. Parents should feel perfectly confident in asserting and helping their children to understand and accept, as much as they may resist it, that being fair means identifying each child's different needs and responding to those. Being fair doesn't mean the same thing for each child.

As for teaching children that life isn't fair, that's another matter. I do think that whether or not life is, parents certainly ought to aspire to be fair -- and that isn't the same thing as treating each child in the same way. I also think that whether or not life is fair, parents need to uphold fairness as an ideal that we all shoot for even if we don't always make it. Again, the ideal isn't to treat each child or every person in the same way, but to treat each according to his or her needs.

MEMBER QUESTION:
I have 14-year-old and 6-year-old girls. They both have strong personalities and get along well at times, but at other times they fight constantly. I find it difficult to get my 14-year-old to not bug the 6-year-old and she often says that I play favorites. She is old enough to know better. How much should I be involved due to the age difference?

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SPARROW:
These are such great questions. There is a little section in the last chapter in the book on sibling rivalry that we entitled Favorites because this is such a common concern for parents.

I think it's reassuring to hear that there is this back and forth between the getting along well at times and fighting at others because that's really what a sibling relationship looks like.

Being criticized as a parent for playing favorites by a child is certainly a skillful way of getting you where it hurts. And you're especially likely to feel vulnerable if you've struggled with your own feelings of responding differently to each child. But one of the common misunderstandings that parents have is that the different feelings we have for our children means that we might love one more or one less. It may be helpful for you instead to rethink that as actually just loving them differently, which is necessary and perfectly fine. That may make you less vulnerable to this kind of criticism of playing favorites.

I do think that when you get involved, you can interfere with them working it out themselves. You may find it most effective, even with this age difference of eight years, saying to both children, "Look, I know the two of you care about each other a lot even when you spend more than half the time fighting with each other. And I know you both know how to look after each other and work things out and that's what I expect you to do." By saying that, you're certainly implying that the 14-year-old has some responsibility, given her age, to not take advantage of that imbalance. You're couching it as not something you're going to make her do, but something that you respect her to have the ability to take responsibility for on her own and that may go over better with her.

MEMBER QUESTION:
My children are five years apart. The youngest is always tattling on the oldest, while the oldest denies everything . I don't know who to believe! What can I do to stop the tattling? How do I know who to punish?

SPARROW:
These really are such great questions! The reality is that you usually won't know who started it, and you can predict that each child will point the finger at the other one. You can just take a deep breath and relax and accept that and say, "I know you both want me to blame the other one, but guess what? I'm not going to blame either of you -- you're both responsible. There's no way I can figure out which one of you did what when I wasn't here, so I'm going to have to hold you both responsible." Now, some parents fear that this is not fair. But what it does is it pushes back the responsibility on the children to keep things under control enough so that they don't draw you in this way.

Now, they may unite with greater strength against you. But I would not be particularly worried about that because one of your main goals as a parent is for them to have this strong relationship. And if your punishment for both of them isn't exaggerated or disproportionate to their misbehavior, then I don't think either of them will really lose faith in you.

"Avoid picking out one for punishment for anything that both have had some involvement in. Focus on the strengths of each of them without comparison."

MEMBER QUESTION:
When my kids fight should I put them both in time-out and for how long? My oldest is 6 and his brother is 4.

SPARROW:
When your kids fight with that kind of age difference, it's pretty unlikely that they are going to seriously hurt themselves. The best response may be to tell them, "Look, the two of you need to sort this one out on your own and get yourselves settled down." without intervening with time-outs.

If it really does look like someone is going to get hurt and you feel like you must intervene, then it makes sense not to try to figure out who started it, but to help both children settle down by sending each to their room or putting them both on time-out.

At this age, the time-out really doesn't need to be very long at all. It also is not helpful to offer the time-out as a punishment because that just pushes the child to rebel against it and a child is not going to stand the time-out if they can't be engaged to do it. So instead, offer it as what they need to calm themselves down. Then the amount of time that you set up for them really depends on how long it takes them to settle themselves. You can tell them, "Look, you're both on time-out until you can get yourselves under control and calm down enough so we don't have anymore of this fighting." Of course there will be fighting but hopefully they can hold it together for another 20 or 30 minutes, and that means that at least that particular cycle is broken .

MEMBER QUESTION:
Will my kids ever be friends? I'm just hoping that I live to see the day when they will get along. They are both in their teen years and they've been fighting since they were toddlers!

SPARROW:
It's hard to answer this question without knowing how old they are or what the age difference is or what genders they are.

I guess what I would wonder about with you is whether or not there are any moments where they do actually get along, look to each other with admiration or for support or guidance. Or even as they fight, still imitate or identify as a sign that they may care about each other more than they outwardly seem to.

You certainly can't make two siblings get along more than they do but there are some things that a parent can try, to avoid to keep from intensifying the conflict between siblings. In the book that I wrote with Dr. Brazelton, we have a section on comparing and competition. Those are both things that parents can feed into. That can intensify sibling conflict unnecessarily. I would recommend that you avoid talking about one sibling with the other. Avoid picking out one for punishment for anything that both have had some involvement in. Focus on the strengths of each of them without comparison. These at least are ways of keeping your role as a parent from making whatever tension there is between them even worse.

MEMBER QUESTION:
It seems like a lot of these rivalry issues are inevitable and the best we parents can do is to not make it worse! Do you think we make the mistake of trying to avoid confrontations in families instead of just being there for them when the kids do clash?

SPARROW:
Yes, I do. I think conflict and confrontation are inevitable parts of relationships. When we acknowledge the existence of a conflict and confront it, share our difficult and uncomfortable feelings and get through it, the relationships are deeper and stronger.

On the other hand, if we deny that these "negative feelings" exist, we make our children more frightened of them and deprive them of the experience of learning to handle them and to grow stronger as they learn to handle them.

MEMBER QUESTION:
How do you counter outside influences that disrupt the advances you try to make at home with your children? For example, my neighbor has two children, 2- and 3-year-old girls. One was climbing on top of my son so the mom told my son to bite her daughter so she'd stop. I see her kids fighting together all the time and I don't want that at home!

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SPARROW:
Later in life it gets harder and harder to protect the child from outside influences. Fortunately, at this age, parents can exert some control on who their children's playmates are. It may create for your own socially awkward situations, but if you really have vehement disagreements with another parent's approach to parenting, you may want to limit or cut off the amount of socializing that your child does with their children. Or, you may want to have their children over at your house far more than you have your children over at their house.

I certainly agree that telling a child to bite another child is a very confusing message for the child. And certainly there are so many other ways to teach a child to defend himself and stand up for himself.

"It might be helpful to try to stop and reflect back on one's own memories of which parent one was closest to because these certainly can be more powerful than we realize in influencing our feelings about each of our children."

MEMBER QUESTION:
I've been told by a friend that I shouldn't react at all to my kids' fights - to just stay out of it and let them solve things themselves. What's your advice?

SPARROW:
My experience has been that your friend is right. Kids rarely cause each other serious harm when there isn't a parent whose attention they are trying to draw into the situation.

One exception to this is when a sibling is too young and too small to get out of the way or call for help. At those ages it is important for a parent to be present to supervise.

MODERATOR:
Are there any positive aspects to sibling rivalry?

SPARROW:
Sure. When children struggle, compete, disagree and fight, they are learning about each other, they are learning about themselves. They are having to weigh their priorities and they are learning all kinds of other things. Every time they eventually lose control, it's another opportunity for them to begin to learn better impulse control. Every time they make a more selfish choice, it's an opportunity to learn to waive their own needs with the needs of the other child. Over time, the positive aspect of sibling rivalry is learning about relationships, learning to understand another person's feelings, to care about those feelings, and to accept one's own responsibility for that other person's well-being.

Although one can talk to many adults who have negative memories of their siblings, I think it maybe that those are the ones that often stick in our minds. And with some help, these adults can scratch beneath that surface to find some of the positive memories. There certainly are just as many adults who even with the fighting and confrontations, remember their childhood interactions with siblings fondly and really rely on their adult relationships with siblings as important supports in their lives.

MEMBER QUESTION:
My husband is always telling me that I "play favorites" to our daughter and don't spend enough time with our son. I don't enjoy "boy play" with trucks and balls and he doesn't really enjoy helping me in the kitchen, etc. What can I do to stop playing favorites?

SPARROW:
That's another great question. Many times in families, when there are two children, particularly one child of each gender, pairs line up in the family where one parent feels more aligned with one child and the other with the other child. Sometimes these switch off, sometimes not.

I would wonder, in this family, as is often the case, whether or not the alliances that have gotten set up are in some way related to each parent's experience with their own parents when they were children. It might be helpful to try to stop and reflect back on one's own memories of which parent one was closest to because these certainly can be more powerful than we realize in influencing our feelings about each of our children.

In terms of what you can do to, as you say, stop playing favorites. I think the simplest and most effective thing would be to set up regular, reliable, privilege time that you spend just with your son. See this time just as a chance to be together and to get to know each other. I think that it's pretty likely that with that kind of time, over time, you will discover your own kind of closeness together that may even surprise you. You may need to choose something to do that's on neutral territory where you both feel comfortable. You may need to go somewhere where you can do something that you both like to do, rather than trying to engage with trucks or cooking -- that's going to ultimately leave either you or him cold.

MEMBER:
My sister and I are nearly three years apart; we are 23 and 26 now. I remember as a child feeling very guilty when I hurt my sister and I would beg for forgiveness. It sounds like these are positive signs for parents to watch for that will make them see that one day the kids will get along. We do!

SPARROW:
That's great. I think that guilt is probably an underrated emotion, but it is a powerful motivator. Every child needs to have the experience of guilt because it is one of the motivations for learning to do the right thing.

This participant is giving us another opportunity to see the silver lining of sibling conflict, which is that if each child then has the opportunity to experience their reaction to the conflict and examine their feelings. There are very important opportunities for learning that they would be deprived of if parents always tried to smooth everything over and to deny the importance of what we tend to consider as these negative experiences or interactions.

"I think that the reason why we wrote this book about sibling rivalry now is that it seemed to us that our world is having an awfully hard time dealing with disagreements and conflict and really seems to be struggling with intolerance and difficulty accepting differences."

MODERATOR:
Dr. Sparrow, we are almost out of time. Before we wrap things up for today, do you have any final words for us?

SPARROW:
I think that the reason why we wrote this book about sibling rivalry now is that it seemed to us that our world is having an awfully hard time dealing with disagreements and conflict and really seems to be struggling with intolerance and difficulty accepting differences. We thought that it was important to go back to the early experiences in families, to look again at the opportunities, the early opportunities, where parents can help children learn to work out their own conflicts and to get through them so that they can get along. We should almost see this as a parable for what we, as citizens in this conflict-torn world, need to learn to do so that we can make our world a more peaceful place.

MODERATOR:
Our thanks to Joshua Sparrow, MD for joining us today. To find out more about sibling rivalry, pick up a copy of Understanding Sibling Rivalry , co-authored by Dr. Sparrow and T. Berry Brazelton, MD.



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Reviewed on 7/5/2005 10:07:28 PM

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