Parenting matters: Coping with sibling rivalry

Being a parent can be tough, but there are ways to take the stress out of raising kids. Diana Hinds looks at the problem areas and meets three families who have found some answers

Parents extending their families beyond one child often fondly imagine that these siblings will be inseparable friends and ideal playmates. When the reality turns out to be different - these children hit and punch each other, compete for their parents' attention, and seem to resent any favour or scrap of praise bestowed on the other - parents' feelings of stress and inadequacy may rise to critical levels. What have they done wrong, they ask, for their children to behave like this?

But looking back, how many of us had purely happy relationships with young siblings? Looking around us, finding that other parents are experiencing exactly the same difficulties, can be immensely reassuring.

Most children experience a mixture of feelings, both positive and negative, towards siblings, and their rivalry, when it occurs, is quite normal in terms of the human survival process and the child's natural desire to receive their parents' exclusive love.

But there are, nevertheless, useful tips that parenting books and classes offer to soften the impact of sibling fury.

"First of all, being given permission to hate somebody - some of the time - is quite important," says Annette Mountford, director of Oxford- based charity, Family Links. And, since what children want in the main is our attention, she suggests we make a point of giving it to them when they are being "good," rather than when they are being "naughty".

When two (or more) siblings are playing harmoniously together, for instance, it may be tempting just to leave them to it for fear of disturbing the game, but to comment favourably on their game may actually be a way of prolonging the harmony.

Siblings often fight with each other as a way of getting their parents' attention, so intervening every time will only encourage them to keep squabbling amongst themselves.

Clearly, families must establish their own rules about what is and is not acceptable - no physical violence for instance. But unless siblings' bickering gets really out of hand, Mountford suggests parents leave them to sort it out if they can. Children, after all, have a right to argue, and parents can always leave the room if they can't stand it.

If a fight turns nasty, parents will need to intervene and separate the warring parties, imposing penalties as necessary, such as "time out" in a boring place like the bottom stair for younger children, or the withdrawal of privileges for older ones.

But when the children have calmed down, parents should encourage them to sort out the dispute with one another.

Siblings Without Rivalry, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (Avon Books) is a popular American handbook on the subject, with some helpful ideas. It advises parents, for instance, to avoid making comparisons, favourable or unfavourable, between siblings: "Whatever you want to tell one child can be said directly, without any reference to his sibling."

It also emphasise that it is important not to worry about always giving equal amounts of attention to each child - impossible, in any case - but to focus on each child's individual needs: "Instead of claiming to love equally, show children how they are loved uniquely."

Finally, Faber and Mazlish say you should avoid labelling children or assigning them fixed roles in the family, for example "the responsible one", "the musical one", "the funny one". "Why limit any of our children? Why not encourage all of them to take chances, explore their potential, discover strengths that they never dreamed lay within them?"

KEEPING THE PEACE

Christine Forrester lives in Newcastle with her two daughters, Abigail, five, and Jessica, two.

"Abigail and Jessica don't hit or punch or pull each other's hair, but they do squabble a lot over toys. I get a lot of 'That's not hers, it's mine'. If there's a book of Abigail's on the floor and she's watching television, Jessica picks it up and then Abigail instantly wants it. Which one do you favour: Abigail because it's her book, or Jessica because Abigail was watching television?

"I feel like I'm constantly in between them, like a referee. I'll separate them until they calm down, and 10 minutes later they're fighting again. I get stressed out, and then I tend to shout because I have a very short temper.

"You feel you're repeating yourself constantly - 'Why can't you be nice and share?' - but it's like banging your head against a brick wall.

"I used to smack them on the hand or bottom, and send them to their rooms. But that never sorted it out for long. Now I try to get round it in other ways.

"I went on a Caring Start course for parents at the Barnardo's centre when Abigail was in the creche there. The course made me think, why are they fighting each other? Instead of just taking the toys off them when they were fighting, I started to try to talk to them about it, to say, what's the problem? When you try to involve them in their own discipline, it makes it easier.

"I also tried to let them sort things out for themselves sometimes - although you can't ignore them when they're screaming at each other.

"I've now stopped smacking them. If they fight, I say to them they won't get their treat of videos and Pringles. It was hard in the beginning to get out of the old routine, and at first the girls didn't believe I would carry it through. Occasionally I did fall back and send them up to their rooms.

"But it makes a difference now. They still do bicker and fight at times, but things seem to be a lot easier and the house is a calmer place than it used to be."

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