Parents cannot guarantee sibling goodwill, but they can remove the obstacles to harmony so that when children are ready to reach out to each other the road is clear.
There is a tendency for parents to deny their children's feelings of sibling rivalry in the hopes they will eventually go away, according to an article by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish in the current issue of Redbook.But feelings that are denied don't disappear, wrote Faber and Mazlish, authors of "How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" and "Siblings Without Rivalry" (both Avon).
They either go underground and reappear as nail biting, bedwetting, nightmares and whining, or they are acted out with pinches and punches.
"As children get older," Faber and Mazlish wrote, "forbidden feelings erupt into the teasing, tattling and battling syndrome commonly called sibling rivalry."
But parents need not be defeated by jealous rivalry among the kids, and Faber and Mazlish offered some suggestions that they have taught to parents in their workshops and lectures.
- Acknowledge children's angry feelings. Children need to have their bad feelings accepted and respected. A response that acknowledges angry feelings can help to defuse them. When hostile feelings are denied, they become more intense and more deeply entrenched.
- Help children express feelings with words. Feelings can be acknowledged and respected, but hurtful behavior must be stopped. Children can learn to express savage feelings in civilized ways.
- Take a stand against name-calling. In the same way that we don't allow physical abuse, it's important to stand firmly against verbal abuse. Names such as fatso, moron and retard wound the spirit and poison the sibling relationship. Parents can point out how they can express themselves without being hurtful.
- Resist the urge to compare. Most parents know comparing one child to another is a surefire way to create hostility between them. If someone said to you, "Why can't you dress like your sister? She's so neat," you might want to push your sister in the mud. Favorable comparisons also can fuel tension.
Use description instead of comparison. Tell yourself, "Anything I say to my child will describe his accomplishments. I won't add anything about what his sibling has or hasn't done."
- Treat children uniquely rather than equally. To be loved equally is somehow to be loved less. To be loved uniquely is to be loved as much as anyone needs to be loved.
"We have spoken to many adults who were never permitted to fight with their siblings," Faber and Mazlish wrote. "At the first sign of dissension, the parents would lecture about love and loyalty. It worked - the children never fought. But they also never had the opportunity to argue, assert themselves or compromise."
- Intervene when fighting cannot be ignored. But such standard strategies for coping with children's quarrels as "Who started it?" lead to denial and lying and can intensify hostile feelings. Faber and Mazlish suggested this step-by-step approach:
- Acknowledge their anger. State each child's point of view. Describe the problem with respect. ("This is a tough one: Two children and only one puppy.") Express confidence in the children's ability to find their own solution. Leave the room.
- Spend time alone with each child.