Sibling rivalry: A how-to guide

Sibling rivalry: A how-to guide

By Claudia Luiz/ correspondent GateHouse News Service

Sibling rivalry is one of the hot issues for parents right now with kids at home more or with everyone on vacation together. Here are the top three recommended strategies for handling the squabbling, fighting, competitiveness, and intensity of sibling rivalry:

1. Command the children to “cut it out” and stop their squabbling. Or else!

2. Leave the room. Go somewhere and close the door.

3. Get involved. Teach them how to negotiate and/or manage their feelings.

Each of the above recommendations is effective, depending on the time and circumstance. Here’s how.

Command the children to stop squabbling

The times children should be asked to stop squabbling depend largely on the parents’ needs and inclinations. Some parents don’t like to hear squabbling in the car where it could distract the driver. The library is another popular place to try and control squabbling. The morning rush or other tense moments are certainly excellent times for children to learn that they are expected to control their squabbling.

With or without the inclusion of a consequence, this technique teaches children to work on self-control, one of the most valuable lessons of childhood.

Leave the room, and even, close the door

This strategy teaches children that they are allowed to work on how to negotiate, use their aggression, and be competitive, all proven benefits of sibling rivalry. Provided they don’t resort to violence, it is beneficial for children to have times when they are allowed to create and work on their own problems.

Another good reason to leave the room is to teach children that if they want their parent’s attention, fighting with each is not going to work. When a parent doesn’t engage in the squabbles, children sometimes lose interest in perpetuating them, and decide, instead, to seek out other activities.

Help children negotiate their squabbles

Parents, by becoming the judge and arbiter of a problem, can provide their children with tools for how to share, how to ignore each other, how to work better together or be less unpleasant. It can also help them manage a seemingly unsolvable problem before they resort to physical or psychological violence.

Well, we certainly have a lot of effective strategies for managing sibling rivalry. The real problem is not that we lack effective strategies but rather that they usually don’t work. This is a very difficult concept for parents to come to terms with: how strategies can be so valuable and effective and…not work.

The thing to remember is that even though strategies may not seem to work very well, the children are still getting very important lessons. They are learning that even though they may not yet be able to stop fighting, they are expected to learn self-control. They are learning that even though it feels so good to fight, it is not always attractive to some of the people in the family or in the outside environment. They may learn that if they want help with a problem, they will be more likely to get it if they whine less.

There are tens of thousands of things children can learn from the variety of techniques parents use to stop sibling rivalry, including their parent’s own limits on patience.

One of the best ways to leverage and capitalize on all the lessons that can be learned from all of these effective parenting techniques that usually don’t work is to tell non-incriminating stories about them. For example, during a calm moment, when the spirit moves you, a story might be told about how at the library, a command was issued to stop squabbling, which somehow led to even more, louder fighting! This is a very interesting story and it usually has a part II and a part III.

Children can learn a lot about how they work and how their parents work from the stories that are told about their lives. In fact, a family that is re-living a familiar storyline that has been consistently re-told can sometimes become more interested in the story than the argument itself. The children might say, instead of squabbling, and with apparent enjoyment, “Mom is going to get more upset with us if we keep fighting at the library right now and then we won’t get that ice-cream and then we’ll cry and then Mom will feel bad and be grumpy.”

Don’t count on it, but it can happen.

As children get older, stories can turn into discussions where problems are processed directly and maturely. So keep using your coterie of effective strategies, and, especially when they don’t work, tell your children stories about them later, when the spirit moves you.

Talk about how you were feeling, how they were feeling and what happened. See if they want to embellish the story in any way, and then, tell a story about that if need be. Eventually, the children will come to better understand themselves, you, and the world of competition, aggression, rivalry and intense emotion – whether self-control is possible just yet or not.

Claudia Luiz, Ed.M., Cert. Psya., LMHC #6053, is a psychoanalyst in private practice with offices in Brookline and Westwood. She works with children, adults, couples and groups. She can be reached at, at 617-947-4838 or via her Web site at

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