Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Solving Squabbles: How to Deal with Sibling Rivalry

siblings fighting over toyWhen I first brought my daughter, Genie, home from the hospital, I expected a mixed reaction from her big sister, Clara, then 3. It was mixed, all right, a bubbling brew of jealousy and curiosity—but mainly, she was curious about how I'd react if she either poked Genie or hugged her too hard. Concerned, I did what I could to help Clara adjust. We spent quality time alone. I read her those “I'm a Big Sister” books. Finally, one morning she was nothing but nice to Genie. “Good girl!” I gushed (you don't work at Parenting without learning about positive reinforcement). Then I gave her a red lollipop. (Yeah, you also don't work here without learning not to use a treat as a reward, but I was on maternity leave, k?)
I left the room for two minutes, then returned to nurse Genie. As I bent over her bassinet, I stopped in my tracks: She was smeared head to toe with red-lollipop juice.
Welcome to the wonderful world of sibling relationships. That “smear campaign” was just the start of what I've witnessed (and refereed) as my kids have grown—everything from sandbox one-upmanship (who can build a bigger castle?) to tugs-of-war over the Wiimote. Which is not to say my kids aren't attached to each other—when one gets invited on a playdate, the other mopes at home till she returns. So why all the agita?
“The rivalry you see—whether your children are fighting for a toy or the first turn on a swing—is really rooted in a struggle for your love and attention,” says Frances Walfish, Psy.D., a child and family psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, CA, and author of The Self-Aware Parent. “Kids want to know that Mom's and Dad's eyes are on them and them alone.” Which can't happen unless you give away all your little guys except one (admittedly, it can be an appealing thought at certain times). Instead, try these friction-defusing strategies.
oy Story
“Now that Dael is eight months old, he's moving around and playing more, and it's been hard for our daughter, Charlee, who's three, to share toys with him. When she sees Dael holding something she wants to play with, she snatches it out of his hand and cries.”
Mike Granek, Vancouver, British Columbia
What's Really Up? Charlee's protests are a way to get the spotlight, says Geoffrey E. Putt, Psy.D., director of parenting and family support services at Akron Children's Hospital, in Ohio. “In effect, she's saying, ‘Look, I used to be your only focus, but now what, my brother gets my toys, too?’ Even if all you do is scold her for not sharing, it's still attention, and any attention from a parent still feels good to a child,” he observes.
How to Stop the Squabbling: This might sound like the opposite of what you should do, but start by making sure each kid has a few toys that belong only to him or her. That's right, not all toys should be shared. (They don't call it OurPretty Pony, now, do they?) “It's important for kids to know they have territory they can call their own,” explains Walfish. Be clear that all other toys are communal property. If the older sib snatches a plaything, that child loses it for a short time—the younger one can still play with it. Then encourage sharing, along with the rule that both need to behave in order to have access to the toy. Give them tons of positive feedback when they share, says Putt. Also give your older child a job: “Tell her ‘You're such a big kid, I need you to help your little brother learn how to play with toys properly,’ then suggest she show him how to use something, like a truck,” says Putt. “It'll help her feel valued and empowered, and almost superior—too much so to fight over every little toy. Then there's no longer a need for her to act up to get attention.”
Variable Interest Rates
“My girls are less than eighteen months apart—Annabelle Reese is three and Claire Elisabeth just turned two. But their personalities are totally different. My little one is a tomboy and loves playing outside, or with stuff like Tinkertoys. Her big sister likes to stay indoors and is sensitive to textures, so she likes to look at books or paint. They always want to be doing different activities.”
Amanda Griffith, Norton, MA
What's Really Up? Nothing but human nature, says Walfish: “It's very common for siblings, even ones who are the same sex or close in age, to have few shared interests,” she explains. Of course, fights over which activity you'll all do can turn into a major struggle, which is why it's important to make sure each child's interests and preferences are honored part of the time.
How to Stop the Squabbling: You can't always foist an unwanted activity on a small child simply because her sib loves it. But as a parent, you'll have to indulge each kid once in a while. If your younger child loves swimming and the other can't stand water, for instance, try to arrange a weekend morning alone with your little mermaid at the public pool. When choosing joint activities, “look for ones that offer a little something for each child, such as baking. The more hands-on child can help mix dough, while your other can use cookie cutters or help watch the timer,” Walfish suggests. Walks are another great idea. “They give a more active sibling a chance to do something a bit physical, while the other child can count squirrels or pick flowers,” she says.
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