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Battling Sibling Rivalry

January 7, 2010 | by Slovie Jungreis-Wolff

Can the war between siblings ever be conquered?

Dear Slovie,

Does this email question that I recently received sound familiar to you?

I have a 9 year old son and a 7 year old daughter. It was her birthday smack in the middle of Chanukah and my son could not let go of the fact that her birthday gift (a t.v.) is bigger and clearer than the one he received on his birthday a few years ago. He freaked out from the moment she opened her gift, and the next night our Chanukah was no better. I like to think that I approach this holiday correctly. We do give a gift from each child to charity and some small trinkets the other nights. Well, the next night my son got a huge box compared to his sister, and while hers was a small painting set, he got a table top hockey/football set. Not only did he not like it, but he did not even acknowledge when we pointed out that his sister never compared sizes of gifts! His reaction to what we thought would have been a great surprise was quite a disappointment to us.

I am frustrated and sad. What should I do?

One of the greatest joys of parenting is watching our children get along. And one of the greatest pains of parenting is hearing our children fight and knock each other down verbally, sometimes even physically. How many vacations, car rides, weekends off from school, even meal times have been ruined all because of ugly fighting between siblings? Brothers and sisters who send verbal zingers across the room or who cannot handle each others good fortune, destroy peace within the home.

Must sibling rivalry be a part of our growing up as brothers and sisters?

Life as a Tug Of War

Parents should know that there is a major difference between sibling rivalry and common children’s disagreements. Kids who get along learn to resolve their disputes and problem solve together. They may sometimes fight and have conflicts, but there are also times that they are able to communicate and enjoy each others company.

Sibling rivalry, on the other hand, is a whole other story. Rivalry is defined as a contest, competition, or conflict. We are talking about brothers and sisters who are constantly competing against each other. Life is one big tug of war, each side pulling against the other.

These children are constantly measuring and comparing:

Hey! Why did she get a bigger piece of cake than me?

When I was his age, you never let me stay up so late!

Why does he get a playstation for his birthday and you never bought a gift like that for me?

And sibling rivalry can grow uglier with time. Imagine the scene in this family’s home next year when Chanukah arrives. Parents holding their breath waiting for the explosive tantrum as their daughter opens up her gift, while their son rants and feels forever neglected. No matter what they do, it will never be good enough.

We all know adults who, in their minds eye, think everyone else always has it better.

Even as grown adults, these feelings surface. We all know men and women who, in their minds eye, are constantly being treated unfairly. Somehow, everyone else always has it better.

“I should’ve gotten that raise!”

“Why does my sister have such a great life?”

“How did my brother ever get that job? I am so much smarter than him!”

Such individuals never feel at peace. They are forever comparing and don’t know how to be content with what they have.

The Green Eyed Monster

How do children come to sibling rivalry? The bottom line is jealousy. Children who envy each other become rivals. They cannot handle the fact that their sibling has something and they do not. It may not be something they need or even like. But jealousy eats away within and pushes a person to grow into a green eyed monster.

Children who view life through an envious lens need their parents help so that they can redefine their very nature. An envious child grows into a spiteful character that spews forth resentment and begrudging remarks.

We often mistakenly feed the jealousy as we attempt to even out our children’s lives. Thinking that we are helping them, we give in to the tantrums. We try to measure out the pieces of cake, buy toys at the same time for each child, and struggle to give each child everything ‘the same’.

What a blunder! There is no life that can ever be ‘the same’. The contest between brothers and sisters only grows uglier.

Overcoming Jealousy

We need to help our children overcome jealousy. Teach him or her that there are no two people in this world exactly the same. We each have our own birthdays, talents, likes and dislikes. And just as we each have our own unique set of fingerprints, so too, are we each born with our own particular mission in life. Our goal as parents is to help each child shine in his own particular way so that he feels fulfilled enough as an individual without casting a malicious eye on his brother’s blessings. It’s not ‘equal’ that I must focus on with my children, instead, its ‘individual’. Why would he need to knock his brother if he felt satisfied and complete with himself?

Being jealous is like eyeing someone else’s gorgeous piece of luggage. Nothing inside fits.

When I was a little girl, I was taught that being jealous is like eyeing someone else’s gorgeous piece of luggage. You lug it home excitedly, open it up, and realize too late that nothing fits. Besides, half the stuff inside isn’t even your taste.

Parents should not help children eye the lives of others. Kids should know that every child in the family is appreciated for his or her specific individuality. We also should not encourage the tantrums and discontent by striving to make each situation equal.

Imagine for a moment a parent’s excitement as she awaits her little girl’s arrival home from school. All day long she is anticipating the moment that her daughter walks through the door and tears open the gift-wrapped box sitting on the counter. It is her youngest child’s birthday and Mom and Dad went all out. Sitting inside the box is a brand new American Girl Doll with her favorite outfits and accessories.

As the younger daughter opens the box, her older sister erupts.

“How could you?” she asks. “I’m older. I should be the first one to get this doll!”

She throws herself on the floor and cries her heart out.

If you are the parent watching this scene, what would you do? Would you feel as if you’ve somehow failed? Would you tell your crying daughter that you’re so sorry that she’s feeling sad and we can order a doll online?

Buying the same toy or feeling guilty is not the solution. We are only feeding our child’s jealousy. 

When children are younger it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that buying the same toy will just solve everything. And it is even easier to feel awful and blame ourselves when our children are unhappy.

But that’s not true. Buying the same toy or feeling guilty is not the solution. We are only feeding our child’s jealousy.  Instead of buying more toys, provide your child with a lesson for life.

Bend down and take your child’s hands in yours. Look into her eyes and simply say, “I know this is hard. You feel disappointed. You wanted this doll first, but now it’s your sister’s turn. Your turn will come. I know that you will take a deep breath and be happy for your sister just like I know you would want her to be happy for you when it’s your special turn. And if you ask nicely, you may even get a chance to play with the doll. ”

We cannot give in to jealous tantrums nor should we attempt to justify ourselves as fair parents to our children. What we can do is reassure our children of our forever love and that we will always try to be there for them and hear their voices.

Indulging their jealous eyes will only make it more difficult for them to overcome their envious nature.  And part of being a mensch in this world is being able to look at others without malice.


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