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Dealing with Sibling Rivalry

As directors, we often function as a counselor for both our teachers and the parents of our students.  This is not always the easiest part of the job, but it is a key role.  By being a sounding board for client issues we maintain the professional distance between teachers and parents, and increase family loyalty.  In helping teachers with their personal challenges we make it clear that we value them and help them to be able to focus when in the classroom.

Everyone at the center has family issues that can effect the program.  The director is well positioned to minimize that effect.  Below is an example of how one of those conversations might go.

Q: We have two daughters, Shelley and Jessie, who are very close in age. Shelley is 10 while Jessie is 8. They fight all the time. They’re always arguing and hitting each other, so it’s hard to have a peaceful home.

I’ve tried to discipline them and take away their privileges, but it’s not working.

How can I end this intense sibling rivalry between my young daughters? What can I do to stop their arguments, fights, and bickering?

A: It’s normal for siblings to have an occasional argument or disagreement. Although parents would prefer that their kids be perfect angels at all times, it’s not a realistic concept.

Children need to test boundaries and learn from their experiences as they grow.

One way they test boundaries is to challenge their siblings. The first step to have a more peaceful home is to understand this and learn how to help them.

You have to dig down to the real reason for their fights. Are they caused by boredom, overstimulation, or other issues? Are they caused by jealousy over the time you’re spending with the other sibling?

They could also be fighting to get your attention and involvement.

Once you’ve answered these important questions, you can begin to formulate a plan to improve your daughters’ behavior.

Q: I don’t think Shelley and Jessie are bored or overstimulated. I try not to favor one over the other, but they still fight.

It’s possible they’re doing this to get my attention. I work full-time outside of the home, and so does my husband. After work, I have chores and so many obligations that I can’t spend a lot of time with them.

If they’re doing it for attention, how can I fix it?

A: The best way to stop these desperate attempts for your attention is to give it to them. However, your busy lifestyle makes this more complicated.

You’ll want to figure out ways to involve your daughters in your after-work routine. Can they help you with chores? Can they entertain you with their stories while you do the dishes or cook in the kitchen?

The key is to spend more time with both Shelley and Jessie, so they don’t feel left out.

You can set aside some weekends for special mother-daughter activities. However, your weekday routine should also include them.

Q: I can definitely try to include them more in my after-work routine. However, I’m really worried about my oldest daughter, Shelley. She seems to hate Jessie and has detested her from the moment we brought her home from the hospital.

I sometimes wonder if Shelley is just starting fights with Jessie out of hate.

She says awful things to her and wishes she was never born. She calls her terrible names, breaks her toys, and even messes up her homework.

I’ve tried to make my daughters care about each other, but it’s hard. What can I do to help Shelley?

A: It sounds like Shelley has taken sibling rivalry to another level and is actually bullying her younger sister. This does occur in some families, and the older sibling tends to control the situation.

First, try to step back and closely evaluate both Shelley and Jessie. Did the hatred really start the minute you brought Jessie home? Or, did it start after Shelley felt you weren’t paying attention to her because of the new baby?

Older siblings can feel left out while their parents shower the newborn with love and care. They may be used to being the only center of attention, so the arrival of siblings changes everything.

It’s important that Shelley feel that you love her just as much as you love Jessie.

Also, if Shelley is bullying Jessie, examine the circumstances. Is the abuse physical or just name-calling and emotional? Shelley may benefit from therapy to help her overcome her feelings of jealousy.

In addition, consider how you react to Shelley’s behavior around Jessie. Do you tell her to stop and do nothing beyond words? If you want to stop the sibling rivalry, it’s important to be an active parent.

Q: I’m at a loss of what to do with Shelley. She seems to start most of the fights, and I use more than words to stop her. I take away her computer and TV privileges. I take away the sweet snacks she loves.

However, this doesn’t seem to faze her, and she just keeps fighting with Jessie.

What else can I do to stop their arguments?

A: It’s good that you’re doing more than empty threats. By taking away her privileges, you’re showing her that there are consequences to her actions.

You may need to try an additional step to get through Shelley. Instead of simply punishing her or yelling at her, sit down with her after you calm down and talk. Have a real heart-to-heart conversation with Shelley alone.

Discuss how her behavior disrupts the entire family. Ask her why she is fighting with her sister. You may learn something new about their relationship and find a different way to address the issues.

Shelley needs the chance to voice her concerns and share why she misbehaves.

Again, therapy may be a good option for her so she can share her feelings in a safe setting. She may discuss things with a therapist that she isn’t comfortable talking about with you.

You may also want to consider family therapy in addition to individual therapy for Shelley.

It’s possible certain dynamics in your family are creating a chaotic home atmosphere that breeds arguments among your daughters. Do you fight with your husband all of the time over minor issues? Shelley may be copying you and your husband in her interactions with Jessie.

Counseling can help you find the path to a more peaceful household.

Q: I will definitely consider therapy for Shelley and maybe the whole family, if it will help with this problem. Meanwhile, can I do something to help my daughters bond and build a stronger relationship?

I always dreamed of my two girls getting along and becoming best friends. I’m disappointed and feel like a failure as a mother because they seem to hate each other. Shelley may start most of the fights, but Jessie isn’t an innocent angel either. What can I do to make them see that they should care about each other?

A: You can do several things at home to help your daughters bond.

First, pay close attention to their interactions. You may even want to take notes. Do your daughters ever get along? Take note of the time of day and activities that make them more peaceful and more rowdy.

Once you’ve analyzed their interactions, you can figure out what tends to trigger their fights and arguments. Then, you can devise some strategies to combat their fights.

Do they always fight right before dinner, and could this be caused by low-sugar levels and hunger pangs? Do they always fight before going to a concert or other family outing because they don’t want to participate?

You have to understand that your daughters are unique individuals. Despite the fact that they share DNA, they’re still special in different ways.

Q: I’m wondering what type of strategies I can use. I would love a clear plan that makes it easier to handle them. What should I be doing at home each day and night to help them get along better?

A: First, sit down with both of your daughters and have a serious discussion. At 10 and 8, they’re old enough to understand that their behavior isn’t just hurting them. You have to explain that it’s also hurting you and your husband.

Although you should also talk to them individually, it’s important to have a conversation with both of them present. This way they’ll know that they’re both responsible for the issues.

Second, make it clear that you love both of them equally. You can’t favor one daughter over the other because they’ll notice. This breeds jealousy and hate, so you truly have to treat them the same.

One of the best ways to stop jealousy is to avoid comparing them – ever.

You also don’t want to take sides while they argue. Make it your goal to calm both of them down and not choose one over the other.

Q: How can I help them communicate better? I sometimes think Shelley just takes over all the situations and doesn’t let her sister have a voice.

A: You may need to intervene and show Shelley that she needs to give Jessie the chance to talk.

For example, if Shelley decides she wants to play with Jessie’s toys, she shouldn’t be allowed to just grab them and walk away. Instead, you should stop her and calmly ask her to get Jessie’s permission first. This will show Shelley the correct way to communicate.

It’s crucial that you stay calm while this is happening.

If you start to yell at Shelley because she took the toys, it will destroy the chance to build a better relationship with Jessie. She needs to see that there’s a calm, peaceful way to talk to her sister.

By yelling at her, Shelley will retaliate by yelling back and won’t be able to stay calm.

Also, use positive reinforcement. If you see her playing happily with Jessie, praise her. You should also praise Jessie, so she doesn’t feel left out. Show your daughters that you want them to be happy and calm instead of arguing all the time.

Another idea you may want to try is the bickering table.

The bickering table can be any table in your house, but it would be preferable if it was small. You set two chairs around it. Then, you let your daughters bicker, but only at that table and only at a specific time at night for 20 or 30 minutes.

Many children have pent up tension and stress from school and other issues.

The bickering table lets them get out the frustration in a safe space. Ensure that both daughters get a chance to talk. Monitor their interactions, so they don’t get out of control.

The table can be a good way to reduce the total number of arguments between your daughters. Eventually, your daughters may get tired of the bickering table and won’t be willing to use it. Nevertheless, insist they keep using it for at least a week or longer because it will teach them that bickering isn’t the only way to settle their issues.

Another tip is to give them an incentive to avoid the table by telling them they don’t have to use it at night if they behave during the day.

Q: I can stay calm and use a normal voice. However, I’m wondering what can I do to help Shelley and Jessie spend more time together?

They’re close in age but don’t really like to spend time together. Each one has her own room and likes different things. I sometimes think they’re like strangers who meet in the hallway to throw toys and yell at each other. They don’t even like eating dinner together.

How can I encourage some togetherness?

A: The key is to teach them to respect each other and respect the private spaces. Once they do that, it will be easier to connect with each other in other areas, too.

You can help by creating a chart with family rules. This chart will clearly outline what you expect from your daughters. It can show them the consequences for bad behavior and rewards for good behavior.

If they work together and get along, reward them. The rewards can vary from trips to the museum to new toys. You can decide how often they should receive them. The pleasant rewards will encourage more of this type of behavior.

Sibling rivalry takes time to overcome in all families. However, recognizing that an issue exists is the first step, and the desire to change is the second step. You’ve already taken these two important steps forward. Good luck in your journey ahead as you continue down the path to more peace and tranquility in your home!

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