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Ask The Expert: How to Handle Sibling Rivalry

Dear Your Teen:

I have two teenage sons, close in age. Everything seems to come easier for Josh, the younger one. He is popular, breezes through his schoolwork, and gets A’s without studying. Alex, my older son, has to work hard for his accomplishments.

Lately, I have noticed some passive-aggressive behavior from my older son towards his younger brother. For example, they sit across from each other at the dinner table, and my older son frequently looks at his brother with an “if looks could kill” look. When my younger son is talking or sharing a story, his brother will talk over him or make a negative comment. How should I handle this? Should I get involved?

EXPERT | Adina Soclof, MS

Sibling rivalry is one of the toughest issues for parents. This scenario is pretty typical. In many families, there is a child, like Josh, who seems to have it all and a child, like Alex who struggles and seems lost behind the shine of his sibling.

To help ease the tension of sibling rivalry, parents should try to value each child for who they are. You might try to stop focusing on accomplishments and, instead, promote the idea that trying and effort are worthy goals. Also, you will want to foster respect in your home. While this won’t get rid of sibling rivalry altogether, it will help increase the odds of having more peace in your home and a more pleasant family dinner.

How to Minimize Sibling Rivalry

Here are some ideas that may help:

1. Don’t focus on who won.

This sends the wrong message. Focus on effort, which is the best indicator of success. Praising our children for their effort, hard work and perseverance is the best way to encourage and motivate kids.

Instead of:
“You are great at math!” and beaming about their latest achievements on the soccer field.

Talking about goals for your family, current events, and community concerns. Let everyone share something about their day, without making it a competition.

2. Try not to compare.

The message can pigeonhole, create friction and unfair expectations.

 Instead of:
“You are the best in math and your brother is the best in sports.”

Try saying (to Alex):
“I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies on that math problem until you finally got it.”

“It was a long, hard assignment, but you stuck to it and got it done. You stayed at your desk, kept up your concentration, and kept working.”

“I saw you were getting frustrated with your homework. You stopped and took a break and a drink. That helped you regain your concentration and finish your work.”

Try saying (to Josh):
“You helped Michael with his motorcycle, you went over there on Monday to help with the engine and then today you went over to do the body work…”

“Thanks for working with me on painting the bathroom, priming, and then painting the woodwork and then the walls…”

3. Try to promote respect.

“Let’s try not to interrupt…”

“Let’s hear him out…”

“I want to hear what you have to say right after Josh finishes…”

4. Keep perspective.

Remember, Sibling rivalry is normal. Once kids are grown they won’t have to live together and they can forge their own unique paths. Tensions may linger but it is most likely that they will be good friends. More important, they will be there for each other when the chips are down.

Still need more help? Try this article:

Adina Soclof, MS CCC-SLP, works as a Parent Educator and founded TEAM Communication Ventures and conducts parenting and teacher workshops via telephone nationwide.  

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