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Mr. Dad: Sibling rivalry turns scary

Dear Mr. Dad: My two children, 8 and 10, have never gotten along. They fight over the smallest things, so our house is a constant battleground. I’ve heard of sibling rivalry but this seems more serious.

We’ve tried sitting them down and talking to them, time-outs, and such, but nothing ever changes. What can we do to make it stop?

A: As parents, we want our children to get along, share, and love each other – it makes life so much easier if they do. But they won’t. As long as there have been siblings – all the way back to Cain and Abel – there has been sibling rivalry. Part of it has to do with competition.

Our society is based on performance and we generally reward people who outperform others. It’s understandable how siblings might feel that they have to compete with each other – for your attention, your praise, your love. And unfortunately, no matter how hard you try, you can’t give your kids equal amounts.

In a lot of cases, parents, and other adults or people of authority, inadvertently encourage rivalry by favoring one child over another. Have you ever found yourself saying something like, “Why can’t you get good grades like your brother?” or “Maybe you should try another activity. Billy is a better athlete than you are”?

There’s no way to completely stop siblings from fighting. But you can help them do it less destructively:

• Go on dates with each child, giving him or her your undivided attention.

• Don’t play favorites and don’t compare your children. They’re different people with different needs. Pay attention to those differences, making each child feel special in his or her own way.

• Understand that you’re going to fail sometimes. It takes an incredibly long time for kids to truly learn that “fair” and “the same” are two completely different things.

• Ask your kids – one at a time – to help you understand why they’re fighting so much. Encourage as much detail as possible. And listen carefully to their answers. If there are legitimate issues, schedule a family meeting to talk them through.

• Establish ground rules. Arguments are OK. Physical violence and name calling are not.

• Intervene less. Jumping in – unless it’s absolutely necessary – keeps them from learning to resolve their differences on their own.

• Look on the bright side. As unpleasant as your children’s behavior is to be around, it may actually be good for them. By fighting with each other, they’re learning about empathy, negotiation, conflict resolution, effective and ineffective ways to handle arguments, and how to win gracefully and lose with dignity.

• Model good behavior. If you and your wife can argue, compromise, and make up, your kids may learn to do the same.

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