The sibling relationship is often the first real peer relationship a child has, particularly if the age gap is just a year or two. This relationship can offer a safe, predictable environment as each child learns to interact with another child close in age. Siblings deal with all kinds of feelings, ranging from admiration and affection for each other to jealousy and anger. They can learn to share and to see another person's point of view; they can also learn how to stand up for themselves, but also how to compromise in order to resolve conflicts. They may learn how to make a friend or, in some cases, how to deal with a foe.
Conflict between siblings is inevitable, but parents can reduce jealousy and competition between siblings by the way they treat each child and by the way they allow each child to treat the other.
Settling sibling disputes
Most squabbles between siblings generally develop and continue by mutual consent. Allow your children to settle such disputes between themselves. But let them know they must observe the family rules of no hurting, and make it clear what types of behaviour are off limits -- abusive name calling, physical fights, and damaging the other's personal possessions.
Parents have to make their own judgment calls as to when and how to intervene, and you must be careful about taking sides. If you always defend the younger or weaker one, you disempower that child. It's preferable to teach each sibling to take responsibility for working out conflicts. They need to learn how to hear the other's side of the story and viewpoint about the situation. As children learn how to listen to all sides of a story, they develop the skills needed to solve problems and resolve conflicts. They learn to be assertive, rather than just aggressive or passive, in creatively working out a solution that includes part of what each one wants, but that both can at least live with.
Sibling rivalry may turn into abuse when, through repeated acts, one child becomes the oppressor and the other the victim, When one child overpowers, punches, kicks, chokes, or actually injures the other, that's physical abuse. A pattern of nasty name calling or ridiculing, of vicious swearing or terrorizing also becomes emotionally abusive.
As with any adult-child abuse, the abuse of one sibling by another, whether physical, emotional, or sexual, can cause lasting damage and lifelong problems for both the victim and the perpetrator. Parents sometimes fail to recognize the seriousness of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse between siblings because they believe that fighting between siblings is normal. It you're concerned that your children's relationship may be abusive, you must take action. Give each child an opportunity to express his feelings without being interrupted. Establish clear guidelines for their behaviour toward each other and set out the consequences you will impose as discipline. Be sure to follow through. Consider also whether your children should be at home alone together after school, or whether they should be separated until their relationship improves.
It may help if parents spend more one-on-one time with the child who's the aggressor. Often there's something else going on in the child's life or in your relationship with him that causes him to take out his anger and resentment on his sibling. When you help him deal with his problems -- whether at school, with friends, or with you, you may find that his relationship with his sibling gradually improves.
Fair, but not equal
Most parents with more than one child would not be surprised to learn that, according to behavioural geneticists, the personalities of siblings are about as varied as the personalities of unrelated children. One child in a family may be cheerful and easygoing, happier as a follower than as a leader. The other child may be an attention-seeking perfectionist who loves to take charge. Or one child may be shy and physically awkward, while the other is boisterous and athletic.
Experts say that it's a mistake to treat each sibling exactly the same way. The key to success is to explain your desire to be fair in responding to each one's needs. This means treating each one as an individual, which might require some disparities, but the treatments balance out in the end. An aggressive child may need more limits placed on his activities and behaviour to contain him, but a timid child may need more encouragement to try new experiences and to take risks.
As you become aware of each child's strengths and weaknesses, you must avoid comparing your children and describing one more favourably than the other. Comparing children is toxic to their relationship both with you and with each other. No matter what words you use, they will probably feel resentful and envious of each other, which might lead to bitter sibling rivalry. Show equal respect for the individual qualities of each child, and let them know you expect them to admire and respect each other.
Excerpted from Raising Great Kids: Ages 6 to 12 by Christine Langlois. Copyright 1999 by Telemedia Communications Inc. Excerpted, with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.