Saturday January 16 2021
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Sibling Rivalries: Sorting Out the Competitive Nature in Children

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Most kids are naturally competitive, especially against the people they know best. It can often be a positive attribute for a youngster striving to become better at a particular aspect of life, be it school or sports.

I can remember a time when I was seven-years-old and I was playing football with my friends. None of us were very good; the best of my friends could probably only throw the ball 10 yards, and tackling resembled something more akin to the antics of WWE Monday Night Raw.

We were just kids, playing and learning a game. We were also kids that had older brothers, and like-it-or-not, those older brothers let us know that we were no match when it came to the gridiron, or the diamond, or any other place where we could play sports.

My brother and his friends ended up taking our football away that day. They offered us a chance to get it back – if we could beat them in a game. Suffice it to say, we were waving the white flag before you could even say touchdown.

Looking back on that day, and many others like it, it’s something that almost all people go through, either with a sibling, a cousin, or even a close friend: an older brother or sister gets the best of their younger kin, while the youngest tries their hardest to get them back.

Humans are naturally competitive, especially against the people they know best. It can even be a good thing for a kid striving to become better at a particular aspect of life, be it school, gaming or sports.

When the age difference is a couple years, such sibling rivalries are often fairly one-sided affairs until the younger child gets bigger, stronger and faster. Only then can they compete with their older brothers and sisters and make their match. However, many children have siblings much closer in age – some a couple years, some a couple of minutes.

Christine is a stepmother in suburban Philadelphia—my stepmom, in fact—who spends a great deal of time refereeing Lauren, 10, and Katelyn, 8. It’s always an ongoing endeavor.

“Lauren is always dominant over the little one, and she definitely runs the show. When they’re in the pool, the big one calls the shots, and the little one always complains she doesn’t get her way,” she says. “But I work with them, and I tell them to be fair.”

That doesn’t mean the younger Katelyn hasn’t gotten the better of big sister in the past. They’re closer in age, so the rivalry becomes much more fierce, because it’s always a chance to show mommy and daddy “who the better one is.”

However, Christine is quick to point out that such one-upmanship must be nipped before it explodes into fits of anger, rage and jealousy.

“Things just have to be put in perspective,” she says. “You follow the rules and you don’t cheat, and if you don’t like it, then find a new game. I don’t tolerate the fighting.”

Even though Christine has taught Lauren and Katelyn to be fair and to respect one another, it’s important for parents with children close in age to make sure these values are ingrained in their children’s minds early in life.

Dr. Paul Friday, Chief of Clinical Psychology at UPMC Shadyside, believes that rivalries are indeed a good thing for young children to experience, but these experiences must take place in the right environment.

“We are social animals, and we are wired for social interaction,” he says. “When our environment places us in proximity with someone a lot, that natural wiring gets tested and retested.

“There’s nothing wrong with normal, healthy competitiveness. That’s why sports are healthy. They are diversionary activities for our aggressive competitiveness. It’s a way of working things out.”

However, not all kids are fortunate enough to have parents that lay down the law when things start to get a little too aggressive. The competitive nature between siblings can lead to insults and name-calling, and that in-turn can lead to all-out fighting. Often times, though, these kids are just imitating what they see their parents doing. If arguments are a frequent part of the family, the children can be compromised.

“There are good techniques parents can use to solve things, but one of the big things parents don’t do is recognize when their children aren’t getting along,” Dr. Friday says. “If you want a behavior to continue, recognize it. If you want a behavior to be extinguished, ignore it.”

Dr. Friday relates an example of negative reinforcement in which two brothers are fighting. When the brothers are brawling, no-holds barred, the parents start yelling for the two to stop. They are negatively reinforcing the two, because they only speak up when something bad happens.

Instead, Dr. Friday encourages parents to positively reinforce their children’s behaviors.

“If the brothers are playing nicely and being cooperative, the parents need to come in and recognize it. They need to talk to them individually, telling the older brother he’s being a good big brother,” he says. “Now you’re learning, versus ignoring anything positive.”

Staff Sergeant Jon Lehman of the U.S. Army agrees with that method of parenting. Lehman has two identical twin sons, and they have been more than a handful over the years when it comes to parenting.

“They like to berate each other a lot, but they also motivate each other. Each one wants to be better than the other, and I tell them that they should help each other out instead of putting each other down,” Lehman says. “Weaknesses are almost more important than strengths in sports; you have to work on what you’re not good at to get better, and I think they get that.”

That can still be hard for two 13-year-olds to fathom, especially when they are only minutes apart in age. That natural competitiveness will always be with them, but the key is to make sure that they have an understanding of one another’s talents and shortcomings.

Sibling rivalries will always be something that children with brothers and sisters go through. These kids want to prove to their family that they’re the best, and they want to let that sibling—especially if they’re younger—know who’s boss and who runs the show. It doesn’t have to get ugly, though.

Teaching your children about mutual respect, working with them on their weaknesses and how to be a well-rounded individual, and positively reinforcing good behavior, are just some of the ways parents can keep competition between siblings happy and healthy.

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