By Aline Weiller
Whether it’s listening to your adolescents argue over what to watch on television or dealing with incalculable cries of “It’s not fair!” sibling rivalry can drive even the most even-keeled parents crazy. It is, of course, born with a second child. The arrival of a new baby forever changes the family dynamic, and you can catch the first glimpses of sibling rivalry when the older child steals the newborn’s toys or misbehaves while you nurse the baby.
Tension between siblings is stressful, yes, but perfectly normal. “Sibling rivalry is mislabeled, and needs to be reframed,” explains Dr. Pamela Varaday, the Santa Monica-based clinical psychologist and author of 15 Minutes to Sibling Harmony. “It’s not inherently bad, but rather, is rooted in biology. Children have competing needs and fight over resources, namely, their parents.”
Indeed, children of all ages vie for their parents’ attention (and affection). Firstborns, especially, scramble to keep their lost position in the spotlight. They experience a grief of sorts—a feeling that they’re no longer enough to sustain the parents’ love.
“Parents often seem surprised at the intensity of the older child’s reaction to a new brother or sister and question how to discipline or manage them. This behavior should be accepted as normal. Similarly, the development of sibling bickering should be anticipated,” notes Janet Woodward, a Connecticut-based pediatrician with 30 years of experience.
Then Comes Puberty . . .
For many parents, the sibling rivalry of childhood is manageable. But when puberty arrives, that can change.
“Little kids will say, ‘You’re a poopy head,’ or ‘You’re stupid,’ or something like that, and parents will kind of chuckle,” says Dr. Mike Bradley, a psychologist and author of When Things Get Crazy With Your Teen: The Why, the How, and What to Do NOW. “But when they hit the teen years and start dropping the F-bomb or saying other terrible things, the parents go on red alert, thinking their kids hate each other.”
But again, it’s normal. Your teens are just regular teenagers clashing with siblings over the same reasons as when they were younger. They are competing for the common pool of privileges, goods, or love. It just sounds a lot harsher.
Still, some additional factors are in play, too, like adolescent development. “Teens are forming their own identities and want to be unique,” Varaday explains. “Sibling rivalry is especially apparent between kids of the same gender and close in age.”
Teens are also especially sensitive to how much parental attention they’re getting (or not getting).
As they individuate, they strive for attention, even if it’s negative.
“Teens still crave attention, though they pretend they don’t need you. My biggest complaint from teenagers is that their parents don’t seem to show interest in them,” Varaday adds.
They’ll argue over fairness—computer time, television selections, and car usage—and compare academic or athletic prowess. Competition isn’t all bad; it’s a sign that they’re asserting themselves, rather than acquiescing. But, it’s hard to endure repetitive spats.
How to Help
The reality? Kids fight. A parent’s challenge is to recognize the triggers, then foster attitudes and behaviors that bring noteworthy change. Try these five strategies from our experts:
1. Map out some ground rules—and stick to them.
You should never tolerate bullying and physical abuse, nor should you expect squabbles to cease entirely. But you can set expectations for behavior before, during, and after the conflict. Establish those boundaries.
“Typical fights in our house center around control—over the video game console or a certain seat in the car. We create a schedule where the kids take turns for certain privileges and have set time limits,” says Sally Haskovec, a Virginia mother of three—two boys, 12 and 13, and a 15-year-old daughter.
2. Model the ground rules.
Excessive arguing, either between your teens and you, or even your spouse and you, can exacerbate sibling disputes. Your children will model your behavior, and adolescents will fight more in families where verbal sparring is the acceptable way to resolve conflict.
“Yelling does not work,” Woodward stresses.
Instead, develop a family philosophy on how members treat each other, where kindness—and appropriate ways of resolving conflict—rule. This may seem like a dated throwback to the Brady Bunch, but instilling a true sense of family pride can help to build relationships.
“Our kids make snarky comments about each other’s schools, course loads, and GPAs. It’s never truly mean spirited, but rather just about challenging each other to try harder. We’ve taught them, instead, to support each other by attending a game or awards ceremony and celebrating the other’s accomplishments,” says Christopher Garcia, parent of a 15-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter in Houston.
Also, don’t hesitate to talk about your teenagers’ ill-treatment of each other, in terms of this philosophy, adds Cleveland-based parenting coach, Amy Speidel. “For example, ‘You know what, I was listening to how you were speaking, and you were being rude. In this family we speak kindly to each other.’”
3. Offer individual attention.
Part of sibling rivalry comes from vying for parental attention. Help ease that by carving out individual time with each child to do activities he likes. Make it official by adding these “dates” to the calendar. And also use everyday tasks—like running errands on the weekend—to grab some one-on-one time with your teens. Finally, make an effort to note good behavior and acknowledge it with praise. “By building self-esteem in each teen, siblings may not need to compete or jostle as much with each other,” Woodward notes.
4. Step in carefully.
When you wade into your adolescents’ arguments, it’s crucial to avoid favoritism, comparisons, and always expecting the older child to be the mature one. “The oldest is actually the most vulnerable as they’ve suffered a loss of status,” Varaday says. “It’s best to step in, without taking sides, and narrate the situation. Have the teens problem solve and set a joint consequence if they don’t work it out.”
But, Speidel says, parents should also recognize that their adolescents may not actually possess the skill set to work out every problem on their own. “When you say, ‘You know what? You are old enough to work that out.’ They are going to work that out with the best tools they have. And those might not be very strong tools. So provide the tools, then walk away, and listen to how they are able to work that through,” she says. “It’s like learning anything. You hand over homework until a child doesn’t know how to progress with it, and then you step back in to provide the support. What the parent is providing is the scaffolding to show the child how to build their skill set.”
And similar to homework or driving—or any other skill you’d like your teenager to master—this can mean intervening more than once.
What’s more, adds Speidel, dealing with siblings teaches your kids how to handle relationships in general. “Recognize that sibling rivalry is part of the growing process. When it does show up, view the conflict as an opportunity for your family to practice with each other. Because that is going to give your adolescent a lot of information about navigating difficult situations in the future.”
5. Acknowledge when you’ve had enough.
About now, you may be thinking, “Yes, but some days, I just don’t want to listen to it anymore!” Well, that’s okay too. But, again, try to express your frustration without taking sides—or using harsh language. “So don’t say, ‘You guys don’t know how to get along. I have had it with your arguing,’” Speidel says. “Instead, try: ‘Wow. This just isn’t working. There’s just so much argument. I’m exhausted by it. I’m guessing you are exhausted by it too. Everybody, we are finding our own space.’ You get the same outcome without judgment.”
There’s no doubt that sibling rivalry will show up for a visit in your home, but with understanding and (we hope) our experts’ strategies in your pocket, you’ll persevere.
Aline Weiller is an essayist, journalist and guest blogger whose work has been published in Brain, Child, Scary Mommy, and Grown and Flown. She’s also the founder of Wordsmith, LLC, based in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and two sons.