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Sibling Rivalry: Opportunity for Learning
by April Terreri

Sibling rivalry can often mean headaches for parents. But the good news is that sibling rivalry offers a great learning lab for young children to develop the skills to get along better with other people they will meet throughout their lives. "Whenever you have a family with more than one child, there will always be some conflict, which is absolutely natural," explains Dayna Jornsay-Hester, community education coordinator at UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. "Sibling rivalry is the commonly used phrase for sibling conflict."

The manifestations of sibling rivalry vary from family to family and child to child, explains Jornsay-Hester. Manifestations also depend on the ages of the children, their temperaments, and their personal situations. "Kids, like everyone else, demonstrate conflict when they are sharing space with others. Kids are also vying for the attention of their parents and for autonomy."

The good news is these natural and inevitable conflicts provide opportunities for children to learn strategies to resolve conflicts. "They learn how to get along with others, how to share and take turns, and how not to be the center of the universe all the time," says Jornsay-Hester. "What is important to remember is how we as parents respond to sibling rivalry."

Parents should not get into the habit of interacting with their kids in a negative capacity of becoming judge and jury, she cautions. "What kids are often fighting about is an attempt to get their parents' attention. The focus should not be on who started the conflict or who is right or wrong. The focus should be on helping your children come to an agreeable resolution."

You can achieve this by separating the kids and allowing them some time to calm down and cool off. "This is a good parental response," says Jornsay-Hester. "These inevitable outbreaks can be used as ways to teach our kids healthy and appropriate ways to resolve their differences. Nobody learns anything in the heat of passion. So it's a matter of helping them cool down and then figure out what went wrong to cause the problem. In many cases you will find that after they have calmed down, they have already forgotten what the conflict was all about."

Parents should not want to eliminate sibling rivalry. This is an unrealistic expectation that overlooks the opportunities for developing skills to resolve conflicts. Parents must set the ground rules for acceptable behavior during disagreements – such as no hitting, yelling, name-calling, or cursing – and enforce consequences if the rules are broken. But what happens when things get out of control? "If siblings are fighting so severely to the point that it is causing emotional and psychological damage to any member of the family – or if it is causing marital problems – you might want to seek a family counselor."

Families should realize that many of the problems caused by sibling rivalry are common issues. But if you are unable to manage them in a way that is healthy for all members of the family, there are people who can help. "The thing I tell parents to remember is as soon as you have a second child, you immediately have sibling rivalry," Jornsay-Hester says. "The older children realize they have to share the love, attention, and time of their parents."

Among some of the best ways to keep sibling rivalry in check is to do things as a family. "Play games and have fun together. Sometimes kids will begin fighting with each other just out of boredom or because they want their parents to interact with them. Try doing things with each child individually while your other child is at a play date."

By using these conflicts as opportunities to help our children learn, we are acting as coach and mediator to help them develop the skills to resolve conflicts that will last them throughout their lives. "Research shows that in families where kids were taught to peacefully resolve their differences, they ended up having closer lifelong relationships with their siblings," Jornsay-Hester says.

For more information, you can reach Dayna Jornsay-Hester at UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh at (412) 692-5325.

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