Coping with Rivalry, Sibling and Other
a letter from suzette
Over the years parents have asked me for advice on a variety of problems. One of the most distressing to them is sibling rivalry. This problem can also arise with children other than siblings; rivalry between cousins or friends can be every bit as intense as sibling rivalry.
We recommend Nancy Samalin’s book, Loving Each One Best, as a useful source of information. I have known Nancy for years and have always found her advice helpful. We have a very similar approach to child-rearing, in which light-heartedness and humor, combined with insight into the child’s point of view, carry parent and child through the inevitable rough patches. As a counselor for many years on a parent hotline, I discovered that parents felt better and families functioned more smoothly when they gained insight into their situations.
Two of the authorities whom Nancy Samalin cites, Haim Ginott and Eda LeShan, also emphasize the importance of lightening up and laughing at the fixes we find ourselves in with our children. Frequently, a change in attitude gained through insight is equivalent to a changed situation.
Through the years, I have frequently given parents tips on sibling rivalry. Here are some that they found especially useful.
- Start off on the right foot. If your older child visits mommy at the hospital, wait until he/she asks to see the new baby. Don’t put yourself in the position of forcing the baby on its sibling, and being unable to hide your disappointment when he or she rejects the baby. Hold a big brother/sister party, and have friends give presents to the older sibling.
- When older and younger children are together, in nine out of ten cases friends, baby sitters, complete strangers, or even relatives will, with no harm intended, compliment the younger child and ignore the older. This is very hurtful to the excluded older child. Imagine being made to feel like a wallflower living next door to the prom queen or the class klutz whose homeroom seat is right in front of the quarterback’s. Then you can appreciate the older child’s upset and anger. As a parent, you have it in your power to intervene immediately in order to spare your older child pain and humiliation. If the baby receives a compliment on his blue eyes, say that big brother or sister has very beautiful brown eyes; if someone says that baby sister is very beautiful, say that big brother is very handsome and a good climber. You get the idea. You are intervening not to correct the adult, who is, after all, expressing affection, totally unaware that he or she is inflicting pain at the same time. You are defusing a potentially explosive situation and trying to maintain harmony within your home. To give the simple reassurance, “You’ll always be my first baby,” can work wonders for the shaken self-esteem of the older child.
- Bullying of a younger child by the older is a more complicated problem. Matters are not helped by the pervasive notion that getting a child to express feelings or vent rage will make things better. Expressing feelings is only a first step, not a goal in itself. It is important to let the older child speak out, but don’t be surprised to hear things you’d prefer not to hear, such as, “I hate her,” “We should put him in the garbage,” or “Let’s give her back.”
- Try to elicit more concrete responses that you can work with. “He’s always in my face,” for instance, is not very helpful to you. Ask, “When is he in your face? What was he doing when you were angry?” You can sincerely commiserate with your child; after all, the dynamics of his or her primary relationships have been permanently altered and basic assumptions thrown into doubt. You can put into words what the older child cannot articulate: “It must be hard for you. Younger children can be annoying. Let’s find out what’s upsetting you and see what we can do about it.”
- The existential core of the problem is that the older sibling does not want a cute little rival. That, of course, you can do nothing about. But by resolving secondary issues, you may greatly reduce the intensity of the rivalry. If, for example, the younger child uses the older child’s toy, try setting up separate toy shelves to replace a common toy chest; label each child’s toys for easy identification; purchase duplicates of hotly contested toys, etc. Having explored the problem from the older child’s perspective and resolved as many points of conflict as possible, you have laid the groundwork for sensible rules, such as “Hands are for helping, not hurting,” or “We take care of each other in our family.” You have created a structured setting in which the older child will feel reassured and empowered, and will be less likely to act out feelings of frustration with uncontrollable rage.
- Build the older child’s sense of pride and accomplishment by providing opportunities to help. When the baby needs soothing, say something like, “Babies don’t have words, like you do. They can’t tell us what’s bothering them. Maybe you can understand and help the baby feel better.” Let your older child snuggle with the baby under your watchful eye, thereby giving the older some responsibility for the care of the baby. This is a wonderful opportunity for her/him to bond with the baby as well. Reward success lavishly: “How did you make her/him happy so fast? You really understand the baby. You’re a miracle worker!”
One final note: temperament is the critical factor in the equation. An easy-going older child may fall totally in love with the new baby; a younger child may go through life blissfully indifferent to the martyrdom the older one attempts to inflict. Most authorities agree that temperament is hard-wired in the brain and emerges by age three. Your temperament is fixed for life, too, so you are limited in what you can do by the personalities involved. But you are not handcuffed: you have it in your power to channel and direct these varied, sometimes opposed, temperaments. Establishing a nurturing, harmonious family is very much a balancing act. Some people have to balance chainsaws on their noses while juggling flaming torches; others never have to do much more than balance their hat on top of their heads. Life’s not always fair.
We are blessed to have these wonderful children in our lives. As parents we need all our skill and creativity to work out strategies to minimize conflict in our homes. Above all, leave the tantrums to the children, who are rather good at it. Adults lose the battle when they have the tantrum. Outstrategize, outfox, outflank your children, try not to invade their turf and pitch a fit.
We are always available to you to advise on and discuss any issues that might arise in your families. Please feel free to come to us with any problems or frustrations. Our experience and insights are entirely at your disposal.
With much love,