A squabble over toys or a disagreement about house rules may seem pretty typical between a brother and sister. However, when the arguing escalates and disrupts home life for the entire family, it may indicate that sibling rivalry is rearing its ugly head. According to New York-based Jane Greer, Ed.D., a nationally known marriage and family therapist and author of “What About Me? Stop Selfishness from Ruining Your Relationship,” when children aren’t taught to share, it results in severe sibling rivalry. “The minute you have to share, the challenge is on,” Greer said. “If children aren’t taught to share, it will cause them to feel resentment, cheated and even controlled by siblings.” Teaching your children to share may at times seem daunting. But creative play and activities that foster relationship-building can lead siblings away from screaming matches and rants of “That’s not fair” to a lifelong friendship where they understand each other’s likes and dislikes. “The goal is to foster a sense of cooperative team spirit, teamwork and fun that comes from sharing fairly,” Greer said.
Getting to the Bottom of Sibling Rivalry
Before you can get your kids to play together nicely and share, you have to understand the root of any sibling rivalry that may exist between them.
Early theories suggest that sibling rivalry occurs as a result of pecking order or a struggle of power positions within the family, said Dr. John Duffy, a Chicago-area clinical psychologist and author of “The Available Parent: Radical Optimism in Raising Teens and Tweens.”
“Siblings work against one another to gain the favor, or at the very least the attention, of the parents,” Duffy said. “More recent work, known as the ‘attention is attention’ theory, focuses on gaining the attention of the parents in any way possible, even through negative behaviors.”
In essence, one child may be taking a position of power by lashing out physically or verbally at her brother or sister just to capture Mom or Dad’s attention.
The root of sibling rivalry is competition for the love of Mom and Dad, said Barbara Chamberlin, a Connecticut-based family therapist and family coach.
“A certain amount of bickering between siblings is normal and to be expected. However, hate and contempt among siblings is toxic and leaves lifelong scars,” said Chamberlin, the mother of two teenage boys. “Children must believe that parental love is not a zero-sum game.”
Chamberlin said that when her sons were younger, competition would sometimes fuel arguments and aggression. She would immediately end the game to send the message that this behavior was not acceptable.
“Because of our calm and consistent response as parents, the boys remained friends through the growing pains, and no lasting resentment built,” Chamberlin said. “Now, after a game, it is not uncommon for me to hear them say ‘Awesome saves, Tom’ or ‘Great score, Jeff’ in the car on the way home.”
Parents also can instill the belief that a parent’s love is equal for each child by modeling respectable behavior, Chamberlin said.
“Husbands and wives must speak to one another with respect and their children will do the same.”
Creative Ways to Improve Relationships
One of the best ways to mitigate negative sibling rivalry is to foster a family culture of friendly play.
“Children who are friends tend to play together and occupy one another’s time, but they are also far less likely to be mean-spirited toward one another,” Duffy said.
Establishing a routine of family and sibling game time not only encourages your children to play together but also helps family members get to know one another’s likes and dislikes.
Duffy suggests creating a good-natured trivia game. Have each child brainstorm details about family vacations, humorous incidents, personality traits and holiday traditions to use as a basis for the game.
“Families tend to love this, and it is a great way to get them engaged, connected and learning more about one another in an enjoyable pursuit,” Duffy said.
Sometimes, it takes getting a little dirty to clean up the mess sibling rivalry may have created. Duffy said that some of his best childhood memories stem from his family’s participation in "letterboxing," a type of treasure hunt that guides families through a set of clues hidden in public spaces and national parks. Families worldwide hide small boxes in public places and distribute clues by word of mouth or on websites, such as Letterboxing.org, for other families to find.
“The journey is the fun part. As a group, a family may need to use a compass, decipher a poem, test their knowledge of anything from geography to history to math, and so on,” Duffy said. “I have found that even the most embittered siblings, used to lying on couches playing video games, lose themselves in the joy and playfulness of this activity.”
The key to this activity is that the competition does not encourage individual winners, a factor that often fuels sibling rivalry.
“The family wins as a group, and the exercise is always cooperative,” Duffy said. “This is by far the most effective way I’ve found to foster familial camaraderie and mitigate sibling rivalry.”
Games to foster friendships among siblings should also appeal to the varying interests of the family, said Erica Curtis, a family therapist in Santa Monica, California.
“A simple project like cutting out magazine pictures to make a collage about things you like to do outside can help lay the groundwork for learning more about each other and identifying fun activities they may both enjoy,” Curtis said. “Collages also level the playing field. Everyone can do it.”
Getting to the Heart of Friendship
Encouraging your kids to use their imaginations and playact also can help improve the sibling bond as well as help them make and keep friendships with their peers.
Sibling relationships often revolve around certain roles, Curtis said. Sammy may be the bossy, older sister while Jake is the shy, passive child.
“It is important for children to have the opportunity to practice different roles so that the ‘bossy child’ gets to practice not being so bossy and the ‘passive child’ gets to try out being more assertive,” Curtis said.
Moviemaking allows children the opportunity to do just that. With a portable video camera, they can take turns directing a scene or acting out a scenario.
"This game helps kids learn how to think creatively and remain open to ideas, even when they don’t agree with their sibling,” Curtis said.
Parents can also encourage games that tackle communication barriers. Charades and Pictionary teach children how to interact with limited communication while incorporating art and improv into their daily routine.
“This forces children to learn how to pay attention to nonverbal signals from their siblings, teaches turn-taking and encourages working together,” Curtis said.
While playing games with siblings, children are learning about boundaries and limits for all friendships, said Dr. Laura JJ Dessauer, certified art therapist.
“Children practice with siblings because it is a safe way to test limits and boundaries without the threats and implications of being ‘banished’ from a peer group,” Dessauer said. “They are testing boundaries and limits, often within the safety of relationships where they feel comfortable.”
Games allow for more opportunity for children to explore, build and create together as siblings and friends, Dessauer said.
“Promoting self-awareness and learning about each other is essentially linked to social flexibility, understanding, cooperation, compromise and communication – all ingredients on how to be a friend.”