THE BLOG

Sibling Rivalry Is Not Welcome Here

11/29/2012 04:21 pm ET | Updated Jan 29, 2013

My husband and I took our family on a scenic drive up the California coast for Thanksgiving break. Thanks to Los Angeles Unified School District, my boys (ages almost 6, 7 and 9) had an entire week off. My husband and I knew that we were being brave, and the trip ultimately went better than expected. The reason? We set the bar really, really low. Our kids fight like cats and dogs. I used to think that it was just par for the course as parents. But thanks to new research coming out of Penn State University, I'm altering my outlook. Parents, unite! Sibling rivalry is something we can change.

I tell my boys all the time that friends come and go, but brothers are forever. Somehow, that doesn't seem to resonate. Read: they bicker constantly. There's three of them. Someone is always getting left out, and it changes daily. We've tried separating them to no avail. No car is big enough for the wrath that is he's bothering me! He kicked me. He looked at me. He smiled at me. Smiling is a punishable offense? Sigh.

I've talked to many adults that grew up with siblings close in age. I seek them out to make sure that they are normal and that they aren't scarred from the experience. For the most part, they seem pretty unscathed from the experience. I ask them if they fought as children and they all laugh. "Of course!" they reply, "and the people that tell you otherwise are totally lying." That's great to hear, but still does nothing for my sanity.

My husband has proposed that instead of separating them, we put them in one room and let them "duke it out." He's only half kidding. To me, that sounds like a cross between Darwin and The Hunger Games and I'm not sure that I have the stomach for it. He said that instead of using our third row seating, we make them sit in one row, elbow to elbow.

But, it seems that the best way to go about this is through good ol' conflict resolution. Researchers at the Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development (Thank goodness a place like this exists!) at Penn State University have found some encouraging news. Professor Mark Feinberg says "we wanted to help siblings learn how to manage their conflicts and feel more like a team as a way to improve their well-being and avoid engaging in troublesome behaviors over time." Professor Feinberg, HELP ME!

The researchers used both a sibling conflict program and a popular book (it doesn't name it, but chances are, I own it) to establish a control group. The program, SIBlings are Special (SIBS) was designed by Feinberg and Susan McHale, director of the Social Science Research Institute at Penn State and professor of human development. And guess what? It worked. It taught siblings to work together as part of a team, as opposed to the colossal enemies my children become playing LEGO, cards and well, anything at all.

Feinberg says "we showed that the siblings who were exposed to the program showed more self-control and social confidence; performed better in school, according to their teachers; and showed fewer internalizing problems, such as depressive symptoms, than the siblings in the control group."

Do you have any idea how happy this makes me? But it gets better! The study shows that parents had lower stress rates as well. My question is... where do I sign up? Until the program is available for the masses, the take away message is this: parenting classes, specifically those focused on conflict resolution, are a darn good investment. I know what I'm buying myself for the holidays.