In the beginning there was Cain and Abel -- every parent's worst nightmare -- the out-of-control expression of one child's anger, frustration and jealousy towards his sibling. The problem of sibling rivalry is a complex one and doesn't have an easy answer. If you find your children becoming jealous of one another, competing or fighting with each other, there are some things you as the parent can do about it.
What you should do about sibling rivalry
Sibling rivalry is found everywhere in nature. For example: baby sharks will ingest one another in utero until the last and largest one is left standing. Baby birds may toss siblings out of the nest to ensure their food supply. And, we are all familiar with Darwin's survival of the fittest as a natural struggle for food and other resources that are necessary to survival -- not only of the individual, but the entire species.
The same is true in the human family. In my years as a researcher and educator, with a Ph.D. in Psychology and Doctorate of Education, I've witnessed sibling rivalry at different levels. The following is a common scenario that I have seen happen in many families.
Your first child receives 100 percent of what you have to give, and in the best of all possible worlds that means a lot of love and attention. Therefore, your child has the best chance for bonding, nurturing and having his/her needs met. Then suddenly, without your firstborn's choice, knowledge or input, a stranger -- the new sibling -- is introduced into his/her world. Not only is this new person requiring a lot of time and attention, but also has seemingly replaced him/her as the center of Mom and Dad's universe.
At first, the new baby on board is a novelty, and your older child may even enjoy some of the busy activities going on, especially if he or she is included. But soon enough, your older child may begin to tire of the novelty and will want his or her place back as the sole recipient of Mom and Dad's attention. However, that is not going to happen. Not only that, but your child soon realizes that his or her place is gone... forever.
A nagging thought sits on the edge of the older child's consciousness: Maybe this new baby is loved the best.
Now this is where things begin to heat up and the first sibling, out of frustration, may become duplicitous as he or she tries to sabotage and even injure your new baby. A pinch or slap, when no one is looking; hiding your younger child's toys; or even overt expressions of anger, such as, "I don't want or like this new baby and I want you to send it back," are only a few examples of how difficult it can get.
The first sibling may become aggressive in general, even when your new baby is not around; or regress into more childish and needy behavior, all in an effort to reclaim his or her rightful and now lost place. This competition, if left without remediation, has the potential to sow the seeds for a lifetime of negative patterns. Then, if another child is born into the family, the resources of Mom and Dad's time and attention in relation to nurturing, bonding, and meeting children's needs are cut no longer in half but, if they're lucky, in thirds.
And so it goes, until by the time your last child is born, the competition for goods and services is very scarce indeed.
To further complicate things, young children are in concrete operations, meaning they are both egocentric and unable to process their emotions critically. Therefore, when they are emotionally upset, they strike out reactively instead of thinking about things and choosing the best proactive course of action.
Furthermore, their understanding of the here and now is concrete and they don't really understand the difference between a city, a state, a universe... or life and death. They are magical in their thinking and can believe that what is killed today will rise up tomorrow. Along with this, since the brain is still forming, your children might develop patterns based on these early frustrations that could stay with them for a lifetime and influence the way they think and feel about a brother or sister for the rest of their lives, as well as influence other significant relationships.
Sibling rivalry is so powerful that it may even affect the roles that we take in a family and the careers we choose for ourselves in the adult world. For example, due to competition with our siblings, what we pick for our life's passion may be in direct opposition of our brothers' and sisters' choices.
So what can parents do about it?
Here are some suggestions I have shared with parents over the years to help ease and manage sibling rivalry between children.
1. Space your children, if possible, three years apart. This gives one child enough time to leave your knee, as he or she reaches for independence, which is the best time to put another child on your knee.
2. Even though there are times in all of our lives when one child is easier than the other, or that we see something of ourselves or our mate in one child or the other, discipline yourself not to show any signs of outward favoritism.
3. Parents must parent. This means to step into your adult self and even override exhaustion to give each child some private time with Mom and Dad.
4. Keep your child in the loop. Explain to your child when a new child is about to be born, and invest them in the process of how to welcome the new baby and care for it.
5. Make your older child your ally. With a wink and a nod, this child can help you shop, choose toys and even help select special foods for your new baby. If you bring your older child into the process, he or she will be more likely to participate with good will.
6. Never make one child responsible for the other. No babysitting.
7. Never make your children share their toys. I can hear the ooh's and ah's out there, but what belongs to your children is their possession and only if it is their choice to share it should it be brought into a common area.
8. Never discount, demean or embarrass your older children. Never tell them to be a big girl or boy, to act grown-upor to be understanding. They are children and they have feelings too. Instead, confirm their feelings with sentences such as, "of course you feel this way, I understand completely." Empathy goes a long way towards cooperation.
9. Never compare your children, their grades, their behavior or the way they look. No competition, ever. No family games where one can win and one can lose. This is a family and not a sports arena, and children should be raised in collaboration not competition. Never tell one child you love that child better than the other because they are behaving better. This is a form of splitting that can turn one child against the other forever.
10. Never tell one child to do things the same way the other one does.
11. Never discuss one child with the other. You don't like it when someone talks behind your back; follow the same courteous behavior with your children.
12. Don't manipulate. Manipulation is humiliation and makes your children feel undervalued and they will not trust you, themselves or others if you diminish their self-esteem.
13. Be fair. This is one of the most essential rules. Your child is watching you and is very cognizant of even-handedness, which, in his/her mind, translates to being loved equally.
14. Practice and rehearse communication through listening. Let your children tell you how they feel. If you listen with empathy, they will tell you everything, and together you can find ways to problem solve. Invest your children in the process.
15. Finally, be prepared. When holidays, birthdays and family gatherings occur, think ahead and find ways as a family to come up with some rules, a plan that can help nip in the bud any of the regular stressful patterns with which you as a family are familiar and can handle with love.
Follow Dr. Gail Gross on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrGailGross