Sibling Rivalry: It’s Never out of Fashion

rivalryA recent post on Facebook by a mother asking for advice about handling her twins’ constant arguing generated more than one hundred comments. I read through most of the responses, looking for recurrent themes, thoughts, or threads. Curiously, a number of adult twins wrote that fighting among twins is normal and not to worry. Parents posted concerns about biting, hitting, verbal and physical aggression, and incessant bickering.

The post prompted me to reread a book published more than fifteen years ago by Dr. Peter Goldenthal titled Beyond Sibling Rivalry. He is a well-known and respected family and child therapist who has written extensively about adult sibling rivalry as well as sibling rivalry in children. He writes about a number of noteworthy ideas that seem to have fallen out of favor in the present-day parenting literature, such as bribery and sticker charts. His book, published in 1999, discussed positive parenting and the importance of empathy and altruism years before these concepts became the primary tenants of today’s popular parenting books. While sibling rivalry does not go out of style, the way we address it changes over time, but sometimes the old methods are worth revisiting.

Goldenthal makes a notable distinction between sharing and taking turns. He contends that since adults are often reluctant about sharing their favorite possessions, we should not assume that our children should be great “sharers.” He believes that the concept of taking turns is a more realistic, prosocial behavior. In addition, he is a staunch supporter of positive reinforcement for good attention-getting behaviors. He suggests that you praise children as often as you can when you see them being kind, considerate, and loving and link positive praise to a specific action or behavior. He feels that positive attention-getting behavior is what must be rewarded rather than behavior that is attended to with threats and yelling. He cautions against global praise, such as, “You are such a wonderful boy.” According to Goldenthal, sibling rivalry can be tempered if parenting is handled with empathy and altruism. He adamantly tells parents not to compare their children; this action leads to tremendous competition and, ultimately, increased sibling rivalry.

He takes great pains to distinguish between “time out” and “time away.” He does not like the idea of time out but relishes the concept of time away because you are removing the child from the fun. Of course, he champions authoritative behavior rather than authoritarian actions and discusses the importance of consistency and empathy. He recommends enforcing the time away without yelling, physical force, or complex explanations. When the time away has elapsed, he believes the parent should hug the child and articulate why the child has been taken away.

Goldenthal makes an excellent distinction between unfairness and imbalance, explaining that children usually feel situations are unfair when they do not get what they want. However, an imbalance is a completely different issue and often necessitates parental observation and interference. For example, he writes that sibling rivalry escalates when one child is suffering and takes it out on his sibling. He warns parents to look out for issues involving peer problems, social issues, or learning difficulties that might explain increased rivalry.

Lastly, Goldenthal reports that his work with families has taught him how important it is for parents to reflect upon their experiences with their own siblings and parents to determine if their parenting style unknowingly contributes to increased sibling conflicts. He advises parents not to gossip or be overly critical. Modeling good behavior is vitally important for family harmony and communication and can help prevent and alleviate sibling rivalries.

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