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Sibling Rivalry: What’s Normal, and When to Get Involved

Sibling relationships can be among the most complex in the world. With our siblings we share a special familiarity, plus lots of shared experiences that give rise to a unique understanding. With siblings, there are few secrets and very little mystery. Your siblings see you at your best and your worst, and they have known you when you are at your most vulnerable. In short, there is nothing simple about sibling relationships.

The special bond siblings share is fantastic in many ways. Unlike friends, you cannot permanently lose touch. There may be ups and downs and periods of sparse communication, but you always know you will reconnect in the end, and when you do you will still have that special bond. Hence, siblings are the people we always can turn to when we feel most alone.

But as any parent of multiple young children knows, there is also a dark side to the sibling relationship. Every relationship is different, but most sibling pairs have some degree of competitiveness. The older one often feels robbed of parental attention, and the younger one often feels slighted or left out. This can lead to resentments that give rise to arguments, fights, and even drawn-out periods of mutual animosity. In times like these, parents might understandably feel at a loss for what to do.

Normal rivalry
The most important thing to understand is that some sibling rivalry is normal. No matter how careful you are, there is nothing you can do to prevent these perfectly natural feelings from occurring.

In general, there is nothing wrong with a manageable amount of rivalry between siblings, as long as the parents do not take sides. This rivalry can foster a spirit of healthy competition that encourages both children to grow and thrive in ways that they might otherwise miss out on. Plus, they help kids learn conflict-management skills that can be important throughout life.

As a parent, if you watch your kids closely, you will likely see that there is much more than rivalry at work. Even the most intensely combative sibling pairs often share moments of tenderness, selflessness, and mutual support. Ideally, these moments will become more common as each child moves through the various phases of life and eventually becomes an adult. In many cases, the shared experience of rivalry can actually help forge a stronger bond between siblings who later find an appreciation for one another.

When to get involved
For normal rivalries, the best course of action for parents is to give the children a chance to work through their conflicts on their own, stepping in only when the rivalry turns into one-sided bullying or physical fighting. At these times, it is often best to separate the kids and let their feelings subside. Many children have an astonishing ability to just let these things go after an hour or two apart. Plus, the time apart gives you a chance to talk to each separately to work out a solution to the present conflict.

When you do get involved in your children’s conflicts, there are a few things to keep in mind:

•    Do not take sides. In some situations, one of the children may obviously be in the right, but it is important to mediate this situation in such a way that both children feel they are being treated fairly.
•    Do not get hung up on who started a conflict. Instead, focus on each child’s part in exacerbating it.
•    Serve as a model of respectful conflict management.
•    Listen to your children’s concerns, but know when it is time to tell them to cool it and separate.
•    If the sibling rivalry becomes more than you can handle, you can always seek help from a professional family therapist.

By Jamell Williams

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