As a mom of three kids, two of whom are twins, one of my biggest challenges is keeping sibling rivalry at bay. I realize that some form of sibling rivalry is inevitable and it’s been happening since the beginning of time (thank you very much, Cain and Abel). My sister and I certainly fought and competed with one another growing up. But I always imagined — before having children – that my kids would love and support one-another, growing-up to be best friends. There were even signs that this might happen when they were very little. My eldest doted on her baby brother and sister when they came home from the hospital, bringing them her blankets and stuffed animals when they cried. When they were toddlers, my twins would waddle out to the playground hand-in-hand, or help each other up when they fell. It was so sweet and heart-warming…and lasted precisely 19 months, 16 days, 3 hours, and 27 seconds.
Now, here I am today with a teenager and two pre-teens. Mornings are torture as they snap at each other, blame each other, and try to boss one another around. Mealtime is filled with arguing over whose turn it is to talk, trying to get one another in trouble, or telling us about what the others did wrong at school that day. And car trips. Oh, don’t get me started on car trips! They are the worst! If I had a dollar for every time I said “no more talking, looking, or breathing at each other until we get home,” I would be able to afford that $30k a year private college my teen is eyeing.
Those pre-children dreams I had of raising three best friends are a distant memory now. Most days I’m just hoping nobody gets pushed down a well or sold to traveling Ishmaelite’s (thank you very much to all of Joseph’s brothers for planting that idea in my kids’ heads)!
I may not be able to completely stop the fighting and bickering that happens between my three, but one area I haven’t been willing to give up on is keeping them from the comparison trap. I never want any of my kids to feel like they aren’t as good as their sibling(s), or that they are expected to be the same. I know that this type of sibling rivalry will only create resentment and separation. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed as they get older this seems to be happening more and more, and it literally keeps me up at night worrying about the impact to their self-esteem, and their relationships.
Despite the many nights spent worrying and praying over this, and my resolve to not let it happen, I can tell you that [spoiler alert] I unequivocally have not figured out a perfect formula to prevent it. But there are a few things that seem to help more days than not, and I’m sharing these with you in hopes you will also share what is working in your family. Maybe together we can create our own play book on how to prevent a lifetime of competition and animosity between our children.
- Help them choose goals that are specific to their talents and abilities. This year all of my kids decided to run cross country. The three of them have varying degrees of athletic ability and experience running and if they all had the same goal of coming in first in their age group or running the same time, it would create a lot of frustration, disappointment, and comparison. So I talked to them regularly about what their individual goals were, focusing on improving on their previous times, and achieving personal bests, instead of all vying for the same goals. We do this with grades, too. My youngest daughter has really struggled with her spelling grade, so our focus this year has been on improving that. While my high-schooler has a history of late or missing homework assignments, so our focus has been eliminating those. This way we can celebrate when each child achieves a personal milestone that is meaningful to them, instead of only celebrating who got the most A’s and B’s.
- Privately encourage the older siblings to mentor the younger ones in specific areas. Now, I realize this may not work in every sibling situation. But my teen is great at making others feel included. She’s always been the kid who seeks out the loners and sits with them at lunch. Meanwhile, my younger daughter has been struggling to balance different groups of friends and the hurt feelings that can come between middle-school girls. Frankly, she doesn’t always like my advice or listen to it because, well I’m her mom – what do I know! So I’ve asked her sister to talk to her about it because my younger daughter looks up to her big sister. It lifts her up to think her big sister is taking a decided interest in her life. Meanwhile, it makes my eldest feel needed and important, instead of feeling annoyed by her little sister.
If there is something one of your younger kids is struggling with, consider bringing in an older sibling, sharing only what is necessary and appropriate so as not to break confidences, and encourage them to help out. It inspires the older sibling, showing them what an important role they can play, while potentially opening doors to a pattern of siblings confiding in and supporting each other.
- Never, ever compare one sibling to another out loud. Notice my caveat of “out loud” here. What I really mean is don’t do it in front of your kids. The psychology magazines will tell you we, as parents, shouldn’t compare our kids at all. But just being real here, that’s not easy for me. Always in my head I look at my younger two and wonder how they are twins when they are SO different in every way. I look at my oldest and wonder how it is her sister is so organized and she struggles. I look at my son and wonder why dental hygiene seems to be so much more important to his sisters than it is to him. But I try very hard not to say these things out loud.
If my children pick-up that I’m comparing them to their sibling and see one child doesn’t quite match another in a specific area, then they start to do this, too. Not only does it become a slippery slope to one feeling inferior to another, but it gives the other sibling a sense of superiority that I don’t want any of my kids to have (ok, well except maybe with the dental hygiene thing – if only my son cared enough about it to be shamed by his sisters!).
Those are three tactics I’ve been trying to employ in my house, and have found success, to varying degrees. I would love to hear what works for you and your children!