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Joanne Stern, Ph.D.

Joanne Stern Ph.D.

Family Dynamics

Words That Hurt: Dealing with Sibling Rivalry

Kids learn to hurt their siblings with words.

Kids will get into it with each other from time to time. There's probably no way to entirely eliminate siblings arguing with each other. Each child needs to learn to stand up for himself and to take care of himself, so you can let them battle it out-to a point.

But watch and listen. If they're expressing their own needs and feelings without hurting the other, you can let them try to work it out between them. Kids learn very early on that the best way to hurt a sibling is not with their fists, but with their words. So if they cross the line into name calling, wicked words and mean behavior, that's the time to intervene. Don't take sides. Just point out the unacceptable behavior and words and guide them toward an appropriate discussion. Tell them it's okay to disagree, but they have to express themselves in ways that don't put down, ridicule or hurt each other. These are helpful lessons for them to learn as they mature and become responsible adults.

Research shows that children with poor sibling relationships are at higher risk for behavior problems and that sibling bullying is strongly correlated to peer bullying. Responsible parenting involves helping your children learn to work through disagreements without hurting or abusing each other either physically or verbally. Every time your children behave badly, it's an opportunity to talk with them about respectful ways to handle arguments and sensitive ways to treat other people-even their siblings. It's a time to reinforce your family value of kindness and sensitivity-of being understanding, compassionate and caring.

When jealousy, anger and competition take over, the cutting words can slice deeply like a knife. Here are 4 scenarios of normal sibling rivalry with tips on how to deal with them.

1. One child gets a new bike and the younger one gets the hand-me-down. The younger one is upset and fights with the older.

Tip: Re-paint and decorate the old bike. Get a new basket, a bell and make it look new and exciting.

2. One child gets better grades than the other and the one with good grades makes fun of the other.

Tip: Affirm both children for how hard they try rather than for the grades they get - because you do have control over how hard you try and you don't always have control over the results.

3. One child gets selected for the school soccer team and the other doesn't. The one who doesn't starts being mean to the one who does.

Tip: a) Confront it straight on - don't shove the issue under the table and don't minimize it.
b) Talk with both kids together about the fact that there are things in life that are both disappointing and heartbreaking. These kinds of things happen in life. You can talk with them about the natural differences in people and help each one learn what their special talents, skills and gifts are. Once they discover them, you can help them learn to maximize them.
c) Although failures hurt, this is the time to teach both kids the value of taking a risk because if you aren't willing to take risks, you're less likely to succeed. Especially affirm the one who didn't make the team for taking the risk and let him know how valuable that characteristic is.
d) It's also the time to reinforce your family value of supporting each other in a painful time-being understanding, compassionate and caring. We are a family that celebrates each other's victories and gives encouragement and hugs for the defeats.
e) Give an example of one of your own failures so your child doesn't feel he's the only one.
f) Acknowledge your child's feelings and continue to encourage him to share them with you.

4. One girl develops earlier than her sister and lords it over the other that she's more mature.

Tip: Have a discussion with both girls about female development and how it has no meaning in the value of a girl. It's a genetic, hormonal issue that no one has any control over, and it just happens when it happens.

When kids are younger, it's easier to solve these sibling rivalries But when they get older, the issues get more complicated and there isn't a simple solution for each incident. That's why it's important to prepare your family and your kids in advance. Teach them when they're young and before the situation arises so they have already learned to support each other instead of making fun of each other. Then when something comes up, it becomes another opportunity to reinforce caring, compassion and learning to deal with failure, disappointment and delayed gratification.

For up to date, practical tips on parenting, please check out my book, "Parenting Is a Contact Sport: 8 Ways to Stay Connected to Your Kids for Life."

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About the Author

Joanne Stern, Ph.D.

Joanne Stern, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist in family and couples counseling, as well as the author of Parenting Is a Contact Sport.