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Family Dynamics

When Sibling Rivalry Goes Awry

Channeling competitiveness into comaraderie

“Mom, tell him to SHUT UP, or I will make him…I mean it!”

You may remember the days in the not so distant past when you were the envy of friends and family. “Your kids get along so well,” they would gush, and you of course puffed your proud feathers and soaked it all up. The proof that you were raising them well felt so validating. Fast forward to today. Friendly backseat bantering becomes bickering that quickly takes a turn toward violence. Their interactions can get so aggressive at times you are concerned that you should not simply chalk it up to typical sibling rivalry. After all, you remember getting in to it with your siblings, but quite frankly you do not recall drawing blood.

Perhaps also quite perplexing is why and how they suddenly became arch enemies after years of mutual respect and devotion. If one or all of your kids are tweens, this situation is not especially surprising, but it certainly shouldn’t be acceptable, after all, you want to avoid further escalation.

Maybe you are reading this and breathing a sigh of relief, your tween may completely ignore her sibling(s) but at least she isn’t violent. You can however acknowledge that feeling invisible in the eyes of their sister is indeed starting to take a toll on your other children.

Finally you may find that your kids are simply fiercely competitive about everything. A little healthy competition of course is not necessarily a bad thing. If however, you feel like you are living life on a reality show where everything provides an opportunity to compete, you will most likely agree that your kids have somehow crossed a line between friendly and cutthroat competition.

“So,” you may ponder, “why did this come about so suddenly, and can and/or how/or should I intervene?”

Let’s start with how it happened. As your children begin the journey toward adulthood, their tween brains are making leaps and bounds. The tween years serve in some ways as an awakening. Kids become more self-aware and more in tune with the world around them. The tween years are also often the time when outside impressions mean everything. Tweens seek to avoid embarrassment at all costs, even when no one else cares or is even looking. This is in great part due to age appropriate egocentrism, which convinces kids that they are always in the public eye. This is the same reason why at times your kids may insist that you are the most embarrassing person on earth, even when you believe you are minding your own business. Within the blink of an eye siblings can go from caring comrades to the evil enemy whom they strive to eradicate, well hopefully not literally. Everything a sibling does is being judged and evaluated. In an effort to elevate ego, the goal becomes to outdo and outshine a sibling who is conceptualized as trying to take what belongs to your child. In addition, it is common for tweens and early teens to experience mood shifts as they grow and develop. This can give rise to irritability and even annoyance. Your other children easily become the target of this mix of emotion. Your tween may become supersensitive to everything his sibling says and does. He judges his brothers and sisters the way he may feel the world is judging him. This serves as a coping skill, a way to manage the insecurity and pressure that comes with feeling that he is always being evaluated.

Calm down the competitiveness

Despite the developmental influences, you do possess the power to take sibling rivalry down a few pegs. The home environment serves as base camp for your kids. It is here that behavior is modeled, molded, directed, and redirected. A few mindful adjustments can make all the difference.

Avoid comparisons at all costs

Most parents affirm the importance of emphasizing each child’s individual assets. Quite often without ill intent however, parents encourage their kids to compete against each other. If the competition in your house has gotten out of control than it is important to heed this suggestion. When you innocently make comments such as “Your brother already cleaned his room,” you send the message that it is game on. Although you may welcome a battle between siblings to complete productive tasks such as chores, by green lighting the competition, you send the message that there is indeed a battle between them. It should therefore not be surprising that they act in kind and declare war.

Parents should present as a unified front

If you are co-parenting your kids, it is important that there is consistency. Even if you are not with the other parent, unified responses make a huge difference in this and other situations. When you both agree on what is acceptable behavior you increase the chances that your children will follow the rules.

Consistent consequences are the key to clarification

It is understandable that if your kids always seem to be at it with each other that it can get exhausting consistently redirecting them. In order to send a clear message regarding their behavior however, it is imperative that you try to remain consistent in implementing consequences. This is particularly important if your kids tend to be physically aggressive towards one another. Once they realize you are always on high alert you decrease the chances that they will continue to hurt each other.

Don’t dismiss, assume all instead

Quite commonly when kids come complaining about an egregious act committed against them by a sibling, a parent will offer that since it was not witnessed, they will refrain from a response. On other occasions a parent will make an assessment of the situation based on history, and/or age, size, etc. This often leads to complaints of injustice and in turn encourages animosity toward siblings who clearly already view each other as the enemy. In such situations, the simple and often most effective response is to assume all are at fault. Although initially animosity between the siblings may increase, when they begin to gain insight they will realize that waging war against each other reaps few benefits because your response tells them they are in this together and will be treated as such.

Encourage empowerment through collaboration

Psychologist Lev Vygotsky promoted the principal of scaffolding. He surmised that with just enough assistance children could reach their greatest potential. Vygotsky fathomed that adults and/or peers can provide such support and guidance. The individual strengths of each sibling offer a unique opportunity to engage in such collaboration. When parents highlight how each sibling can help the other, they encourage a dynamic of cooperation instead of competition. Few things feel more empowering to tweens in particular than competency. By capitalizing on strengths parents afford their tweens the opportunity to feel important and accomplished in role of teaching and guiding. This negates or at least lessens the need to challenge and/or conquer siblings who are perceived as competition.

Reinforce role modeling

In situations in which one sibling tends to act as if the other(s) is invisible, parents should focus on the importance of acting as a role model. Most often in this scenario an older sibling ignores one or all of her younger brothers and sisters. Parent should ask the older sibling to step-up. The trick here is to set the proper tone so that older siblings present as caring and supportive elders, not ruthless, overbearing dictators.

Certainly some sibling rivalry is to be expected. If however, the competition has become cutthroat and/or even violent, fine-tuning your approach to the concern can be the difference between your home serving as a battlefront or a bastion of brotherly love.

More from Jennifer Powell-Lunder Psy.D.
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