National Edition

Corralling the good in sibling rivalry

Published: Monday, April 21 2014 6:00 a.m. MDT

Matt and Janelle Marshall play with their children Donovan, Cameron, Howie, Nina and Rex. The children fight and love fiercely.

Amber Pearson

OLYMPIA, Wash. — David Simonsen wanted his teenage son to earn money, so he offered what he thought would be a tempting task: the chance to sell stuff on eBay.

The boy wasn't very interested. So Simonsen, a marriage and family therapist, harnessed sibling rivalry and offered the task to the teen's sister, younger by a year. She was all over it. That lit a small fire under his son, he said.

Most families with more than one child have experienced sibling rivalry in some form. Age and personality are among the factors that determine how often it occurs and whether it's constructive or destructive. The trick for parents is learning how to tame its wild, ugly side while enjoying the fact that sibling rivalry can motivate and build both pride and skills.

"I think it's good when it's managed well," Simonsen said. "Resolving rivalries gives children skills they can take outside into the real world. But it can get overwhelming, too."

Birth of rivalry

Sibling rivalry is an interesting constant in Janelle and Matt Marshall's home in Centennial, Colo. Their son Donovan, 12, has Tourette's syndrome and his brother Howie, 10, is very protective. But that tenderness doesn't extend to the next in line, Nina, 8. Howie is jealous of attention Nina gets, said their mom.

Howie tries to follow the rules and be good; Nina's not that big on rules. "It drives him crazy she doesn't get in trouble the way he would like to see it. He points out everything she does wrong. He's so sweet with Donovan, but with Nina, there's no mercy. He doesn't understand she's younger or that she already feels the boys all team up against her," Janelle Marshall said.

Nina, in turn, picks on Cameron, 6. Cameron picks back, but he greatly admires Howie, who rewards him by teaming up with him — except, that is, when they are all participating in physical activities. Cameron is surprisingly tough, and the older boys don't want him to win, so they gang up.

Simonsen said rivalry happens more with children who are close in age. "If you have a 14-year-old and a 6-year-old and sibling rivalry, that needs to be addressed," he warned.

Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, Calif., who wrote "The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child," believes rivalry is stirred by the birth of a new child. To some degree, older siblings "lose mommy." She said even fights over toys are actually a symbolic representation of a battle for parental closeness. Children primarily want to know who is more loved and favored.

It is not, however, always benign. A study in Pediatrics by researchers at the University of New Hampshire said rivalry can cross the line and that children victimized by a sibling were more likely to have mental health issues. Sibling aggression can be harmful, it said.

"If siblings hit each other, there's a much different reaction than if it happens between peers," said lead researcher Corinna Jenkins Tucker, associate professor of family studies and lead author, in a written statement. "It's often dismissed, seen as something that's normal or harmless. Some parents even think it's beneficial, as good training for dealing with conflict and aggression in other relationships."

Purdue University researchers in a study of fathers' favoritism found stronger sibling rivalry among daughters — and that dad's favoritism was more bothersome than mom's.

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