It is 6 o’clock in the evening. Mrs. Allen walks into her house exhausted from a long day, places her packages on the kitchen table, and begins to unload her purchases. Just then, her four-year-old daughter Jessica happens by, sees a huge package of Pampers protruding from one of the brown paper bags, and begins to scream: "You always buy something for baby Tyler and not for me. It’s not fair.”
Parents of two or more kids often hear the phrase, “It’s not fair,” whether it has to do with a complaint that you have read an extra story to one child, allowed an older sibling to stay up later than a younger one, or poured an ounce more of apple juice into one of your children’s cups.
Children are constantly making a mental account of how much they are getting and how much you are giving to their siblings. They are measuring whether or not they are equally loved. Parents find sibling rivalry difficult, because it implies that they are treating their kids unfairly, when in fact they are trying very hard to be even-handed. The desire to please all their children weighs heavily upon them. Parents also worry when their children are not acting very loving toward one another. They badly want their kids to get along.
The underlying issue that prompts sibling rivalry is that it is hard for children to share their parents’ love. Even though a small child may think a baby brother is absolutely perfect, or enjoy cuddling on the couch watching a movie with an older sibling, deep down he often longs to be loved the most.
Sometimes I suggest to parents that in order to understand the child’s experience, imagine what it would be like to share their spouse with another wife or husband. How would it feel to be told: “ I’m sorry honey. I can’t talk to you right now. I’m watching TV with wife number 2?”
Sharing parental love is a fact of life that siblings must endure, and at times it raises powerful feelings of jealousy and anger for them. Sometimes they will see that extra ounce of apple juice or the package of Pampers as extra love going to a sister or brother.
When children are jealous, they may have tantrums, cry, engage in negative attention-seeking behavior (for example, standing up on a chair at dinner time to get attention) or they may even come to blows with their sisters or brothers. If your children are hitting one another, set a limit immediately. Tell them, “We do not hit anyone in our family. It is okay to feel angry, but you cannot hurt one another. You must use your words.” If they continue to fight, tell them, “You both are not managing together,” and send each child to a different spot in your home to play alone until they calm down.
If your children begin to argue in the next room, wait a few moments to see if they will resolve the problem before you go in. If they cannot, you’ll need to intervene to teach them some positive communication skills. Children do not naturally know how to handle conflicts. When you enter the room, avoid taking sides. Some parents always support the younger child or the older child, causing one child to feel less loved. Instead, make general statements such as, “We don’t grab things from one another,” or “You need to take turns.”
Encourage the youngsters to talk about the problem. Each child can tell her side of the story (often an opposing view). Validate each child’s opinion. You can say, “Oh I see. That’s your opinion of what happened,” introducing the idea that in a family, each person will experience a situation differently, but each viewpoint must be respected.
Encourage the siblings to express their feelings and assert their wishes to each other. For example, teach them to say, “I’m angry that you changed the channel without asking.” The more they can put their emotions into words, the less they will turn to a physical expression of their emotions.
Engage your children in creative problem-solving. For instance, you can say, “I see that you both want to watch your favorite show. What shall we do?” They might come up with their own viable solution based upon what you have taught them. For example, they might decide: ”Let’s make a chart. Each day we will mark off whose turn it is to choose the show.” A timer or a chart acts as an external organizer, helping siblings to relax about getting their fair share. These devices help siblings to resolve basic issues, such as whose turn it is to go first or sit next to Mommy, more peacefully.
As you support your children’s feelings and help them negotiate solutions, they will eventually internalize your approach to situations, and over time resolve problems effectively on their own. Your ongoing affection, verbal reassurance of your love, and spending individual time alone with each child, will help your children to grow up feeling equally loved.