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Best friends, worst enemies - how to handle sibling rivalry

Siblings. They can be the best of friends at times, and the worst of enemies at others.

Best friends, worst enemies - how to handle sibling rivalry

Although it is not uncommon for siblings to experience some degree of jealousy or competition, there are certain instances when the rivalry becomes unhealthy. TODAY File Photo

Siblings. They can be the best of friends at times, and the worst of enemies at others.

It is common to see siblings teasing each other and competing for their parents’ attention, or even when they go on to adulthood.

But while most parents dismiss this as just another facet of having more than one child, research has shown that if not tended to, the rivalry could degenerate into bullying, and take a toll on their children’s mental health.

The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, conducted by the University of Bristol, looked at almost 3,600 children in Britain and got them to complete a questionnaire on sibling bullying at 12 years old, then another one when they were 18.

The researchers in the study, which has been described as a world-leading piece of research, found that children who were more frequently involved in sibling bullying – whether as bullies, victims, or both - were more likely to develop mental health disorders, including psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia.

Parents should therefore be watchful, and act when the normal rivalry between siblings turns into something more sinister.

“Typical sibling rivalry includes making comparisons on who can learn to read first and who has the best grades, squabbling and poking fun at each other,” said Mrs Jean Shashi, a psychotherapist and director at Relationship Matters counselling centre.

“There may be initial feelings of envy or jealousy, but they do not linger or overly affect the children,” she added. “Studies show that this competitiveness seems to diminish over time after middle adulthood.”

Although it is not uncommon for siblings to experience some degree of jealousy or competition, there are certain instances when the rivalry becomes unhealthy. As an example, Mrs Shashi cited instances when one sibling tries to be so much like the other that he gives up his preferences and needs, or makes major life decisions which are motivated by a desire to match up to the other - by taking a job that he hates, but which conveys a status similar to that of his brother, for example.

Ms Pamela See, an educational and developmental psychologist at Th!nk Psychological Services, listed other signs that a rivalry is taking a turn for the worse: If it is starting to stress the whole family, or if one child purposefully disagrees with whatever his sibling says or does, or if they show aggression towards each other, it is a sign that things are on a downward spiral.

“Children have different temperament and personalities. If both are strong-headed, it is more likely that they would have an unhealthy rivalry,” she said.

Parents must know how to deal with such situations so they do not descend into bullying. One way is to ensure that they apply consistent parenting styles for all children, said Ms See.

“Set clear house rules and ensure that you spend time individually with each of your children,” she said.

“Set clear consequences for bad behaviours, such as bullying. Parents should also be good role models when managing conflicts, as children often observe and model themselves after their family members.”

And if the situation does get worse – in the case of bullying or an intense sibling fight – how you react to the situation is crucial too. Mrs Shashi suggested parents deal with the children separately, and to first give them some comfort and reassure them of your love, instead of telling them what they did wrong and how they can build a better relationship with their sibling.

Then, acknowledge that their feelings – not behaviour – make sense to you. This will help to diffuse the anger and soothe the hurt. When they are calmer, explore what their next steps should be.

“Last but not least, respect their wishes, whether they choose reconciliation or continued strife. If you were to suggest reconciliation, your child may misunderstand that you are on the other’s side, and this will further deepen the rift between them,” said Mrs Shashi.

“Your child will naturally wish for reconciliation if he can sense your love for them. This form of conflict resolution works better and faster if you have a good communication and rapport with your child during your daily interactions,” she added.

Zerlina Sim, 46, a life and mindfulness coach and founder of the Honeyjoys Soulful Parenting blog, has dealt with sibling rivalry between her three children, aged 10, 11 and 13. She said that, during early childhood, the rivalry played out in physical ways – snatching toys, exclusion during group play or hurting each other. In adolescence, more sophisticated aggression is deployed: Siblings may engage in verbal aggression, withhold consideration, practise deliberate unkindness or carry out acts designed to embarrass each other in front of peers.

“During the most recent incident of sibling bullying in our home, we had a 40-minute discussion, after which the aggressive child realised that she needed to find strategies to more effectively manage her anger and frustration, which arose out of unrelated incidents during her school day, instead of taking it out on her siblings and peers,” she said.

“The victim learnt that her courage to speak up about her aggressive sister did not result in her being further victimised, as she initially feared. Instead, she felt safe and empowered to have been able to help her sister along the journey of greater self-awareness.

“In our home, we employ the 4 C’s approach to conflict resolution – calm, core values, coach and connection,” she added. “As parents, we are not always going to be around to mediate in disputes. It is critical that siblings learn how to support each other, even during difficult circumstances.”

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