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Encourage Children to Support One Another by Diverting Direct Competition

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

One source of conflict between siblings occurs when siblings compete for the same role within the family. For example, Jimmy and his sister will likely become more competitive with one another if they each decide that they must be the smartest, best performing student. In such a head to head situation, there can be only one winner; one very best performer. Parents can combat this tendency by helping their children to redefine the meaning of their conflict so that there is more than one way for them to win.

happy familyFor example, parents can celebrate each of their children for their unique and individual qualities. Adults should regularly share verbal and physical affection with each child and point out different and true characteristics that make each child special. As well, parents should encourage children to get involved in activities or hobbies that will help them develop and express their talents and thereby have success experiences. In so doing, parents help build each child's unique gifts and talents in a way that does not directly compete with what their siblings are doing. If Jimmy's sister is going to be the academic super-star of the family, Jimmy's parents can help Jimmy focus on other talents, such as his athletic abilities. As each child understands that they are competing in different arenas, and that their success is not a mutually exclusive proposition, their rivalry should become less intense and they may even come to support one another.

Alternatively, parents can examine areas where children compete directly and try to reframe their praise of what children are doing so that they no longer see the need to compete with one another with such force. If Jimmy and his sister have each decided to compete with one another to become the best student in the family, their parents can look at how the family has defined what it means to be a "best student" and see if a tweak to that definition will help the situation. Parents might decide to reward each child's effort and how well their performance changes from their previous performance baseline rather than looking only at each child's absolute performance, for instance. By redefining the meaning of "success" to be something that is not a zero-sum or "winner take all" but rather something that can be shared, parents should see their children's rivalry reduce in intensity. Families who succeed in redirecting sibling conflict in more productive directions such that children no longer view their siblings as a threat, will hopefully find that children become freed up to support one another, and can root and cheer for their other family members and not feel left out.

Moderating Children's Sibling Conflicts

When children have conflicts, Parents should encourage independent problem solving of their sibling conflicts to the greatest extent their developmental skills allow. For younger school-aged children, moderating conflicts may require parents to offer direction and support in working out problems. Parents should be careful not to take sides during children's arguments. Instead, parents should help each child to talk about what is upsetting them and help them problem-solve the situation in a step by step manner. Helping children to identify the problem, come up with different solutions, and compromise is a great three step strategy.

For example, 7-year-old Chelsea and 9-year-old Magdela may argue about who gets to sit beside Mom during movie night. Instead of solving the problem for them by issuing a decree, Mom should calmly ask her girls to talk out the problem on their own. "Girls, take turns telling each other what you each want. Use your inside voice; don't shout" When both girls say, "I want to sit by Mommy", Mom can ask, "What are some ways you can think of to solve this problem so that you both can get what you want?" The girls may come up with solutions such as taking turns sitting by Mom on the couch, or having Mom sit in the middle of the couch. Next, Mom should ask them which solution they can both agree to and compromise on. It may take some back-and-forth negotiation, but the girls will probably decide on one solution they both like. Mom may need to remind the girls throughout the process to speak respectfully to one another.

Should conflict between siblings ever becomes severe or physical, parents need to immediately intervene by breaking up any fighting and enforcing any appropriate consequences for fighting. Parents can enforce a break period during which everyone calms down, and then bring children back together for a problem-solving session when they are calmer.

Parents always need to protect their children's safety. If one child becomes violent toward another, parents must immediately intervene with the violent child, shutting down the aggression and explaining how the behavior is inappropriate and will not be tolerated. Appropriate consequences for the aggressive outburst having occurred should also be applied.