Jealousy between sisters and brothers is the most common source of tension in the majority of families. Professionals like to label this problem “sibling rivalry.” This simply means “competition.” Sisters and brothers compete against one another in order to achieve a more favorable position in the eyes of their parents. The prize, of course, is more attention, more love, and a sense of greater status within the family as the most favored child. As the children see it, the name of the game is looking good in your parents’ eyes while seeing to it that your brothers or sisters look really bad.
Children start off wanting their mothers all to themselves, but most soon learn they have to share. Mommy doesn’t just belong to Robert. Mommy is married to Daddy, so Robert must learn that he has to share Mommy with Daddy. Then, when a little brother or sister arrives, Mommy has to be shared even more. Children struggle all their young lives with the difficult concept of sharing and that’s why jealousy and sibling rivalry can carry over into the adult years.
Five-step plan for minimizing sibling rivalry
For normal sibling rivalry, start with steps 1, 2 and 5. If you have a bad case of sibling rivalry, then do all 5 steps.
1. Each week, give in to your children’s fantasy of wishing they were an only child. This is accomplished by spending one-on-one time with each child. The time can be as short as 20 minutes. During this time it is just you and one of your children. If you’re married, then each parent can rotate and this becomes easier. Being able to spend private time with a parent once a week is very soothing to children. And you will love the experience too. Private time helps to calm down their jealous feelings. If you can do more than 1 session a week, then go to it.
2. Stop playing judge each time the kids get into a fight. Playing judge actually inspires your children to fight more. Since each child wants to be your favorite, they are forever trying to get each other into trouble with Mom or Dad. When you play judge, you end up making one kid the “good” kid and the other kid the “bad” kid. The “good“ kid sees himself as your favorite and the “bad” kid hopes the next time she will be able to turn the table on her brother. By acting like a judge, you are actually rewarding the fighting, which in turn keeps it going. This is just the opposite of what you want to do.
Instead of playing judge, inform your children that starting tomorrow, there will be a new rule. Explain that each time they start to fight, you will give them a 2-minute warning to stop and find a way to get along. If they don’t succeed they are both going to be sent to their rooms for 20 minutes.
Here is how it works: Say to your children when they start to fight, “You have 2 minutes to stop and find a solution. If you don’t, you are both going to your rooms for 20 minutes.” Chances are the kids will shout back, “but that’s not fair … he started it.” You then answer, “I don’t care what’s fair. All I know is that you children have to learn to get along and if you don’t stop fighting you are going to time out for 20 minutes.” At the end of the time out, ask your children how they might solve the problem they had when it occurs again. They may have an idea such as, “we could put our names on the crayons,” or you may have to supply a solution for them to try out next time. Remember, children have to learn to get along with others and this process starts at home. As you teach your children how to work out disagreements with each other, you also are teaching them how to get along with their friends.
3. Inform your children that after dinner, you will make a decision as to how successful they have been in getting along that day. Explain that if you see an improvement, they will have their normal privileges after dinner. This means they will be able to play and watch TV and have their normal bedtime and story. Think of a privilege as anything your child enjoys and looks forward to. If your children have behaved poorly with each other all day, they will lose their privileges and have to go to bed 45 minutes earlier. Sounds tough, but if you are not strict at this time, your children will not be motivated enough to work on getting along.
4. To further inspire your children to work on getting along, offer them a weekend prize. Inform your children that if you decide that they have had a good week, then they can have a weekend prize. You and the children decide on Sunday what the prize will be for the coming week. It could mean renting a video, having a friend stay over, making popcorn, ordering a pizza, playing a special game they love, getting to stay up an extra hour or going to the movies. Stop and think about this. Your children now have to cooperate in order to win a special activity they both would love.
5. You just catch them when they are good. What this means is that you periodically reward your children with your attention when you see them getting along. You compliment them for getting along. This is a very powerful strategy in helping to shape your children’s behavior. Most parents ignore their children when they get along and yell at them when they start fighting. In this way they are giving the poor behavior attention and ignoring the really good behavior.