© Rick Hanson, Ph.D., and Jan
Hanson, L.Ac., 2005
Reducing Sibling Rivalry
If our two-year-old
sees me hugging her four-year-old big brother, she'll rush over -
saying loudly, "No! My mommy! Go away!" - and try to push him away.
He's getting more and more frustrated with her and starting to push
back pretty hard. Their squabbles are already probably the biggest
single source of stress in my life -- and it's getting
Our siblings are usually the
people we know longest in this life, but it's striking how many
people have distant, even hostile relations with their brothers and
sisters. Family tensions related to sibling rivalries wear on
parents individually, and sometimes can challenge their marriage -
so it's important to tackle them in steady, systematic ways.
Signs of Deeper Issues
Sibling squabbles are usually a marker,
a symptom, of underlying issues, such as:
- Depleted, stressed-out parents
- Disengaged fathers
- Too much child care
- Over-busy, chaotic homes
- Not enough time and nurturance
given to children
- Not enough parental authority
- Unmanaged temperamental or health problems
Ask yourself if any of these could be a factor in the sibling issues in your family. If so, make a serious plan with your partner to address it - and consider the practical suggestions in the rest of this column.
In a family, just like in any other situation,
if we keep working at something - and stick with it - it usually
Before the Second (or Third, etc.) Baby
- Fill up the "bank" of personal
and marital well-being before things really hit the fan: eat well,
get lots of sleep, don't start a remodel (or new business!), be
extra loving and patient with each other, and so on.
- Get the older child settled in
any new, practical arrangements that you've been planning well
before your due date, like weaning, moving out of the family bed,
adding a couple days at preschool, etc. (But we must add that it's
often helpful to continue co-sleeping with both the older child and
the toddler in the parent's bedroom as a way to ease the transition
to Baby Makes Four [or Five . . .]).
- Build up the father's
relationship with the older child - since dad is going to need to
fill the vacuum left by mom's shift of attention and care to the
- Try to give the older child
some experience with infants. In age-appropriate ways, do what you
can to explain how his or her life will change when the baby
- Set up in advance lots of great
support for mom, dad, and marriage when the new child arrives: a
doula, some housecleaning, help from relatives, a little extra in
the bank, etc.
Especially During the First Year - But
- Really keep an eye on
replenishing yourself. There's no way to avoid getting worn out, but
you don't have to hit bottom. Protein with every meal, sacrifice
housework for sleep, get out of the house, reach out to other
parents, take your vitamins, make yourself get exercise -- all the
common-sense things you can do if you set your mind to it.
- Cut the older child as much
slack as you can (and without creating an enduring behavior
problem). Remember that she has been supplanted, and that she sees
her rival every day occupying the throne she once held.
- Make sure dad and others give
the older child a lot of time and love.
- Daily if possible, arrange for
some time when the father or others takes care of the infant so that
the mother can spend good, one-to-one time with the older child.
- Minimize the occasions when the
younger one wrecks the moment of the older one - as in the example
at the top of this column.
- To the older child, keep
pointing out instances when the younger one was interested in him,
and really looked up to him
- Try to create routine
situations in which the two children enjoy each other's company,
like doing fun things together with a parent.
- Beware "tilting" toward one
child or another, such as over-protecting the younger child and
being too demanding of the older one.
- Parents have got to be willing
to be the justice system in the family -- otherwise, it's the law of
the jungle: most of the time, kids do not actually work it out among
themselves: it's that whoever can hit the hardest or yell the
loudest or work the grown-ups most skillfully is the one who
- Parents create justice in the
home through standing for certain values, having clear "house
rules," and using a skillful combination of rewards and penalties.
For example, think about how the kids have mistreated each other
over the past few days, and turn those incidents into rules that
would stop them from happening in the future. Of course, usually you
have to back up the rules with consequences, but that's just
Parenting 101, and already familiar to us all. The key is naming the
rule (e.g., No Hitting. No Grabbing Stuff. No Interrupting. No
Put-Downs.) and then getting serious about enforcing it just about
every single time.
- Have an attitude of "I AM THE
BOSS. I AM IN CHARGE. I WILL NOT BE DEFEATED. I WILL PREVAIL!" That
confidence will help sustain your efforts, plus your kids will sense
it and be more willing to cooperate.
Hanson is a clinical psychologist, Jan Hanson is an
acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are raising a daughter and son,
ages 12 and 14. With Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they are the authors of
Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and
Intimate Relationships, published by Penguin. You can see their
website at www.nurturemom.com or email them with questions or
comments at firstname.lastname@example.org; unfortunately, a personal reply may
not always be possible.)