An Overlooked Side to Sibling Rivalry

While pregnant with my second child, I fretted endlessly about how my firstborn daughter would adjust to the dramatic change of a sibling. Every day I read books, articles, online advice, etc., advising me how to make the transition smooth and to reduce potential resentment. Such advice included scheduling one-on-one time, making my daughter feel loved as a unique individual, and finding ways for her to help with the baby. I implemented this valuable advice with a vengeance. I took care of the big three (transitioning out of crib, weaning, and potty training) well before my due date. I read her picture book after picture book about new babies and being a big sister. Yet, despite all my efforts, my daughter’s jealousy abounded after my son arrived. Not until I attended a seminar taught by Portland parent educator Glenda Montgomery two years later did my epiphany occur. The powerful words that changed my parenting and altered the course of my children’s relationship? You are not a judge.

Beyond the second wife

We occasionally hear the analogy of the second wife, meant to help us understand our firstborn’s experience when our second arrives. Like our firstborn, we too would struggle with going from being a one-and-only to suddenly sharing attention with someone younger and cuter (i.e., a second wife). But to empathize with our children when we step in and take sides, we most likely need only to recall actual adult experiences.

Think back to a disagreement when a third, uninvolved party stepped in and gave two cents. Perhaps you wanted your husband to take out the garbage without being reminded and your mother-in-law oh so gently pointed out that he works hard all day. True? Probably. Helpful? Probably not. Not only do we resent a third party butting in and weakening our position (which even adults present with some bias), but we also feel ganged up on and defensive and hardly interested in the wisdom of the outsider.

Easier said than done

Unfortunately, refraining from playing judge with our children is as hard as it sounds. You turn your back for one second only to find your toddler in tears and a drumstick in big sibling’s hand. How can you help but momentarily view your older, stronger child as mean when you see your innocent, helpless baby crying her heart out?

Although sometimes counter-intuitive, effective alternatives to taking sides exist. The following suggestions can help our children view us as advocates rather than judges and their siblings as friends rather than competitors.

Think long-term

When we dole out a good dose of condemnation and/or punishment, we may feel justice prevailed for the aggressor’s misbehavior, but if our long-term goal is to improve our children’s relationship, we’ve effectively weakened our cause. Resentment likely overshadows any remorse for wrong-doing. As far as the “offender” is concerned, the whole negative experience would’ve been avoided if not for the sibling.

Further, repeated judgment influences our children’s identities and how they view themselves in the family, and subsequently, the world. When we judge our children, we help solidify roles, such as victim or aggressor, that may well follow them throughout their lives.

Remain neutral

First of all, even the most hovering parent occasionally misses pieces of the story. Often, we either believe we see enough to give out our verdict or we ask questions until we’re satisfied we know who’s at fault. Unfortunately, any outsider coming in and assigning blame creates a winner/loser scenario, with the winner learning to value coming out on top, and the loser feeling misunderstood and resentful. Hillsboro mother Wendy Saxton says her two young boys resolve their issues far more successfully and quickly when she lets go of “getting to the bottom of the issue” and focuses instead on moving forward.

Encourage independent problem-solving

Rather than offering solutions or taking sides, notice the conflict and ask if your children want help. “It looks like you guys are having some trouble. Would you like help working it out?” If their answer is no, then walk away with a “let me know if you change your minds.” If one says yes, then lead them neutrally through problem-solving steps. Tigard mom Cassi Denari begins by getting down to her boys’ level with a hand on each to show her acceptance of both children. If your children are in a mental state to problem-solve, ask them what they want and for ideas to address both their concerns and their sibling’s. If they’re too riled up, suggest a cool-off period and return to the issue when they’re ready.

Advocate in private

Don’t worry about whether the joint verdict is fair, only whether it satisfies all parties. If you’re concerned that your youngest is getting the short end of the stick, you can role play and brainstorm how he may better support his position outside of the conflict, but avoid trying to alter a mutually agreed-to solution. Your children’s long-term relationship and identities matter far more than the disagreement at hand.

Discourage tattling

When a sibling informs you about another sibling’s wrong-doing, resist the temptation to get involved unless safety is concerned. Instead tell the child the only person you want to hear about from her is her, or if the transgression is against her, ask what she can do about it herself. Responding by reprimanding the other child reinforces telling on others and drives a disloyalty wedge between siblings.

Enjoy the results

Not all siblings are destined to become best friends, but they can all learn to value each other’s strengths and differences and are far more likely to do so if we remove the competition for our good opinion. Take the pressure off yourself to have all the answers, be there to listen, understand and guide, and sit back and enjoy watching those you love most in the world love each other.

Laurie Davala is a Certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator, Learning Specialist, and mother of two teenagers. See article also at Pittsburgh Parent.

by Laurie Davala