Sibling rivalry is one of the oldest forms of conflict known to mankind. Its drama has been played out in folkore, literature and film. In the animal kingdom, many newborns shun their siblings as a form of survival. I’ve read about how some baby birds push their siblings out of nests to ensure their own food supply. In a less dramatic way, we see some form of this played out in our homes. I have two daughters, and my dream is for them to develop a close relationship, to always help and protect each other. But how do we, as parents, turn our wishes into a reality for our kids?
If we have siblings, we can start by looking back at our own sibling relationships. My relationship with my older brother, Felipe (pictured), was a fairly typical sister-brother relationship. I must admit, I would annoy him to get his attention or borrow his soccer socks without asking for his permission. Thankfully, as we got older, he learned to forgive me for my little-sister antics and we enjoy a great relationship.
That didn’t stop my jitters when I discovered I was pregnant with my second daughter. I worried how my older daughter, Sofia, would respond to her sister.
I was grateful that Sofia was excited about having a little sister and became mesmerized with Olivia’s every smile, milestone and silly dance. These days, though, 6-year-old Sofia has been hiding her toys and avoiding Olivia whenever she feels like the 2-year-old is about to erupt into a tantrum.
How do my husband and I handle these tense moments? I have learned to start with myself. Here are a few tips to encourage healthier sibling relationships:
Don’t compare children. I received a lot of tips as a young parent, and one that I always keep in mind is to not make comparisons among siblings. I’m guilty of sometimes thinking, I don’t understand why Olivia throws a fit every time she has to sit in the high chair to eat; Sofia never did that as a baby. A child-development expert reminded me that each child feels he or she is unique and can resent being evaluated in relation to someone else.
Within reason, let siblings settle their differences. The goal is to encourage children to find a common ground or solution themselves. Parents should judge when it is time to step in and help mediate. When is the right time? Before things get physical, or when you hear hurtful words being exchanged and it is clear the children cannot come to a solution on their own.
Be creative with hand-me-downs. While I was expecting Olivia, my friend Benny – who has five grown children – offered me some great advice. If it’s financially possible, try changing up or altering the “hand-me-downs” so that what you are passing on feels personalized and special to the younger child. To get myself in this mode of thinking, I painted the drawer knobs on Sofia’s changing table, giving it a completely different look.
Give rewards and consequences. Some family therapists recommend giving siblings consequences for arguing, including time-out and writing sentences such as, “I will play nicely with my brother.” When you see positive interactions between siblings, try giving them a praise, treat or a privilege such as staying up late one night or an extra trip to the park.
While all these approaches are helpful and great ideas, sibling rivalry will always exist – just like conflict will always exist in the adult world. The key is to help our kids resolve problems in their closest relationships now so that they can carry those conflict-resolution skills into adulthood.
Daniella Guzman is the anchor on NBC4 Southern California’s “Today in LA” weekday morning newscast, 4:30-7 a.m., and a mother of two. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @daniellanbcla.