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Living in Close Quarters: An Opportunity to Address Sibling Rivalry

Siblings. You can’t live with them. You can’t live without them. And with all the together time that families have had these past months, you can’t ignore them. Debbie Paris, LISW and psychoanalyst, explains how sibling rivalry can be the source of negative feelings and how parents can help their teenagers address them.

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Understanding Sibling Rivalry

Paris acknowledges that sibling relationships are “on steroids right now” and recognizes that “too much togetherness” may not be so great for these relationships. Luckily for parents, there is a lot we can do to help children navigate the complexity of sibling relationships. And the starting point is understanding sibling rivalry.

People talk about sibling rivalry as a joke but it’s not. When parents bring home a baby, it’s a very major blow to the older sibling as it disrupts their sense of the world and their place in it. Paris likens parents bringing home a younger sibling to a husband bringing home another wife.

That’s why it’s important for parents to recognize that while older siblings will come to love their younger siblings, they also need to acknowledge that it’s hard to welcome someone else into their space. “There is a loving piece and an aggressive, angry piece.”

Paris also stresses that when we see siblings get upset with each other, it is possible that they are really most hurt by their parents and their worries that they are parents love their sibling more.

Addressing Sibling Rivalry

The teenage years are a great opportunity to work through these issues.

When teenagers are angry at each other, demeaning each other, and being unkind, parents need to first address the behavior and make it clear that it’s not okay. But they should also address what’s driving it.

Like all other difficult conversations, this is best done at a time when there is not a lot of tension. Paris suggests starting the conversation by saying, “You know you’re very hard on your sibling and you have been since you were little. And I wonder if it’s because you thought we didn’t love you as much when your sibling was born. If you think that, that would be so painful. No wonder you get mad. For the record, of course, I don’t love one of you more than the other.”

All parents want to know how to get one sibling to stop “poking the bear” without being accused of taking sides. Paris suggests a simple explanation. Tell them, “I’m not taking sides, but there are certain things that are not allowed in our house.”

Many times, we don’t see the provocation, but once the dust settles, it’s time to sit down and discuss what happened. Paris reminds parents “to get to the story behind the story” and discover why they are behaving the way they are.

Interestingly, one thing that brings siblings together is when they band together against their parents. They can unite in complaining about how annoying Mom is.

Susan Borison, mother of five, is the founder and editor of Your Teen Media. Because parenting teenagers is humbling and shouldn’t be tackled alone.

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