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.
Meanwhile, a briefing paper on sibling rivalry from the University of Michigan Health System said most siblings become close even if they've been rivals and that "working things out with siblings gives your children a chance to develop important skills like cooperating and being able to see another person's point of view."
"My kids kill and adore each other," said Darah Zeledon of Plantation, Fla. The children closest in age often want the same toys or prizes. But, she added, they also, "when not killing each other, play nicely because they share interests."
The boys, Natan, 9, and Yair, 7, are the most competitive, usually around sports. Leah, 10, competes with everyone. She's the "scorekeeper," concerned about fairness. Yordana, 12, competes with her around academics. Dalia, 6, will compete with anyone because she doesn't want to be left behind.
"I think parents need to realize there are ways to channel that for good," Zeledon, author of "Girl with the Crooked Smile — Stuck in a Moment," said. "It can help children try to do things better: who has the best manners, the best grades. Worded properly, it can encourage in a positive way."
Rivalry among her children over objects doesn't last, but the quest for the attention of Zeledon and her husband, Joaquin, is constant, she said. They try to impress their parents with grades, manners and other things. She's not easily impressed, she added, so they end up trying harder. "It does encourage them to do better."
David and Lu Simonsen usually prefer their children work things out. "It eliminates tattletaling to some degree," he said. "It helps them learn to negotiate and compromise."
As it did with their kids' eBay sale, rivalry can motivate and prompt healthy competition. "You take that and extrapolate that out to when your children are in the real world," said their dad. "If a child is not motivated and does not know how to resolve conflict, that child is going to have a tough go of it trying to be 'successful.’ ”
Vanessa Wade of Houston grew up the youngest of seven kids and was often compared to her siblings. "Did I like it? Not that much," said Wade, 33. "Yet I learned how to stand out among them, and it carried over into my professional career. I believe rivalry is part of life. It motivates you to think on your own, be creative and can yield good results. As long as you are comfortable in your skin and don't feel like a failure, it is normal to have healthy competition. Sometimes our siblings are a wake-up call — if they can do it, so can you."
Her middle siblings were known for good grades and leadership. "Teachers would say, 'You know that your sister passed with an A in advanced chemistry,' or 'Your brother did an outstanding project' and give me a look as to say 'You are going to outdo them, right?’ ” said Wade, who owns Connect the Dots Public Relations. She worked harder.
Turning down the heat
Children under 4 have no hope of working things out themselves, Walfish said. They are still learning language and how to express themselves. They aren't able to compromise or delay gratification. Parents have the job of socializing children and teaching skills.
For older children and even adults who can still experience sibling rivalry, Walfish suggests appreciating healthy competition and working on self-awareness. The more one can look inside, the more capable of happy, satisfying relationships that person will be. "What is helpful is if parents equip kids to deal with disappointments," Walfish said.
The little Simonsen girls argued so much over dolls that their parents made a simple rule: If someone is playing with something, even if it's yours, you're not allowed to ask for it, he said. No one's going to play with anything for that long; eventually everyone moves on to something else.
The Zeledons, too, have rules: No belittling each other. No bullying. If one sibling degrades or is condescending to the other, that child must apologize and do something to make up for it. A brother who makes fun of a littler sibling's lack of skateboarding skills will spend an hour teaching the little one to skateboard, she said.
The University of Michigan experts say not to play favorites or compare children. Teach them to cooperate, not compete. Help children find positive ways to get attention, and make sure they have their own time and space.
They note that ground rules are important and consequences should be clear. Forbid name-calling and hitting. When children fight over something, the item itself should go in time out so no one gets it. A child who demands to be first should go last.
Darah Zeledon offsets rivalry and fosters cooperation with team-based competition. "I'll announce that I have prizes for those that put their folded clothes away in their closets. Instead of the 'each man for himself' approach, I'll encourage collaboration and announce that if your roommate's clothes also aren't put away properly, no one can win whatever it is I have to bribe them with at the time," she said.
The Marshalls encourage the kids to share their successes but to be considerate of the other kids. Lording it over a sibling is not allowed.
As for fairness, it's impossible, Marshall said. "Trying to make every bedtime equal, or every play date? I tell them the only way I can make things fair is if nobody gets friends over or there's no screen time. If you want me to be fair, nobody gets anything. They hate hearing that. But it is true."
Zeledon said while rivalry can be a bother, it's just part of her children's lives. "They can be nasty. But family is everything. Your sibling is everything. When we are gone, they will need to rely on each other. So we balance that rivalry out by knowing we love each other and stick up for each other. My children say they love each other every day. We never sell each other out," Zeledon said. "Always, blood is thicker than water."
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