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Top Parenting Experts Take On Sibling Rivalry

04/08/2015 05:41 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015
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Taunting, teasing, poking, prodding, annoying, tattling, grabbing, punching... does it sound like dinnertime at your house? Here at The Mother Company, reader polls consistently reveal that sibling rivalry tops the charts as the bane of parents' existence.

And many parents accept it, acquiescing, "that's just what siblings do..." But in working with some of the top parenting experts in the country over the last year of production on "The Siblings Show," (the latest episode of our "Ruby's Studio" kids' video series), we have gleaned so much incredible advice and wisdom that I just had to share.

So, in honor of National Siblings Day (April 10), I asked a few of our top experts in the field of sibling relationships to offer the number one piece of advice they've found to help families who are struggling with sibling discontent. Take a look. Hopefully, some of this insight can help boost the harmony quotient in your family.

Dr. Joshua Sparrow, author of Understanding Sibling Rivalry -- The Brazelton Way:
Sibling rivalry is a part of any sibling relationship. It is not pathological, but the flip side of the passion that binds siblings together. As soon as the youngest sibling is old enough to scream for help and run for safety, the best thing a parent can do to keep from turning sibling rivalry into a problem is simply to stay out of it. A parent's involvement in sibling struggles almost always intensifies them. Often, it shifts the focus from their immediate disagreement to their concerns about the parent's fair and equitable distribution of love and other resources. A parent's job is not to get to the bottom of which sibling caused the conflict, but instead to encourage them to commit to figuring out how to resolve their conflicts on their own.

Dr. Laura Markham, Author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life:
My number one piece of advice is to strengthen and sweeten your connection with each child individually. Once your child is convinced that you couldn't possibly love anyone else more than you love him, his siblings cease to be a threat.

The reason children compete is to insure their survival in the face of danger and scarce resources. So your job as the parent is to love each child clearly so he never needs to wonder if you might love his sibling more. That would be impossible, since he knows your love for him is limitless. In practice, that means:

  • You spend some time with him, one-on-one, daily. No screens, no books, no structure -- just whatever he would like to do. During that time you just pour your love into him.
  • You empathize. Behavior may have to be limited, but all feelings are allowed. Feeling understood by you strengthens the relationship more than almost anything else you can do.

  • You seek him out for hugs and smiles, to look at the fireflies together out the window at dusk, and just to tell him you're so glad you're his mother.
  • When he needs you, you show up. If your hands are full, you apologize and tell him when you'll be able to tend to him; then keep your promise.
  • You surprise him with little notes, favors, and activities. This takes some mental energy, which as a parent can be in short supply. One solution is to keep little notes on your to-do list, so that every week you do one small special thing for each child.

Dr. Pamela Varady, Author of 15 Minutes to Sibling Harmony:
There are a few key points I try to get across when helping families with sibling relationships. First, I try to get parents to understand that punishment or consequences can control behavior somewhat, but they don't teach siblings how to behave and they don't reduce the desire to misbehave. Instead of focusing on punishment or decreasing fighting, find ways to increase the bond between the children, helping them grow their warmth and connection. Studies have shown that siblings who exhibit moderate to high levels of bickering but also high levels of warmth and connection yield close adult relationships later in life. On the other hand, siblings who bicker less often but also show no real warmth between them generally end up much less close in adulthood. So don't focus on the bickering, focus on the warmth. Your kids need shared, non-competitive experiences together on a regular basis, not always rushing off to their independent activities and lessons, but having quality time together. Just like how parents need a "couples retreat" now and then, siblings need a "Sibling Day" -- perhaps once a week -- to help them learn to be competent at being a good brother or sister.

Often, what parents think is sibling rivalry, is actually children needing work on their social skills: "I'm interested in playing with you, but I don't know how, so I'm gonna poke you to get your attention." They need to learn how to initiate play. Clearly, if they don't learn these basic social skills, they won't get along so well. And it's our job to teach them. Don't butt out of arguments completely, just don't take sides. You must be involved in order to teach social skills and build a foundation of love and respect. Many kids don't even know why the sibling relationship is so important to celebrate, since it's never been articulated for them.

If you do want to use consequences/praise, do it for the group. If one kid starts trouble, punish both kids. Say you don't want to hear it, you're both responsible for this, go to your room together. And they may fight for a while and then likely they will play. Be sure to catch them when they are doing well and give descriptive praise to make them feel appreciated for getting along. Then they will come to see that there are a lot of benefits to being in a positive sibling relationship.

(Be sure to leave comments to let me know what works for you!)