“Brothers and sisters fight—it’s just the natural ebb and flow of family life,” says WebMD. “Different personalities and ages can play a role, but siblings also often see themselves as rivals, competing for an equal share of limited family resources (like the bathroom, telephone or last piece of cake) and parental attention.”
This quote is typical of the well-accepted notion that sibling rivalry is a normal part of raising children.
But then, people are always shocked and horrified over the gruesome news of fratricide. For example, the shocking sibling murders in 2013 include: a 15-year-old girl and her 10-year-old brother murdered their 6-year-old sibling in Lewisville, Texas; a 15-year-old boy stunned the small town of West Point, Utah, when he knifed to death his younger adopted brothers ages 4 and 10 because he was jealous for the attention of his biological mother; a 14-year-old girl stabbed her 16-year-old brother to death after a heated argument in High Point, North Carolina.
After hearing such news, and once the shock wears off, most people go on about their lives thankful that it was someone else’s child or family. Yet, it isn’t always someone else’s child or family. Between 1980 and 2008, 3 percent of all U.S. murder victims were killed by a brother or a sister. This is an alarming statistic when you consider the mental and emotional torture families endure when confronting the aftermath of such tragedy: one child in the grave, the other in prison!
Sibling Strife Can Damage for Life
Sibling rivalry is extremely common. A new study, conducted by Corinna Jenkins Tucker of the University of New Hampshire and published in the American journal Pediatrics in December 2013, stated that a third of the children participating in the study admitted they had been a victim of sibling aggression over the past year. That number was greater than the number of children who reported being bullied at school.
Most parents stick their heads in the sand, not wanting to face the problem or admit that it exists. Yet sibling rivalry does exist and is growing worse. Contrary to common belief, children don’t work out sibling rivalry problems on their own. Sibling competition, bickering and fighting, when left to run its own course, becomes a much more serious problem than a squabble over the last piece of cake.
Obviously not all sibling squabbles end with a fatal knifing. However, even short of such an outcome, the emotional and mental damage caused by sibling competition can wreck the relationship between brothers and sisters for a lifetime.
“My brother was physically aggressive, but I more than made up for it with my nasty remarks—remarks that I believe have helped lead him into a life of drug problems,” says Rachel, 39, in the same study published by Pediatrics. “He doesn’t speak to me now, and I can’t seem to forgive myself. Sometimes it eats me up inside.” Stories like Rachel’s are so commonplace they are likely innumerable.
For many frustrated parents, sibling rivalry appears to be an unsolvable problem. Is there a successful solution? Experts claim there is, but beware who you listen to. Not all agree on the way to handle fighting among siblings.
Parents, Take Control
WebMD suggests, “The screaming might be driving you nuts, but avoid getting in the middle of an argument unless a child is in danger of getting hurt. Try to let your kids resolve their own issues. Stepping in won’t teach your kids how to handle conflict, and it could seem as though you are favoring one child over another—especially if you’re always punishing the same child.”
That statement is so lacking in wisdom and understanding it is unbelievable. Parents worth their salt understand that parenting involves fulfilling grave responsibilities while raising children. Wise King Solomon wrote: “[A] child left to himself brings shame to his mother [and father]” (Proverbs 29:15, English Standard Version).
Effective parenting demands that parents be the authority in the home, which means that they are lawmaker, enforcer, investigator, teacher and peacekeeper. Siblings must be taught how to resolve conflict. Fair and equitable punishment for fighting is a major part of the education process. The reality is, if you are not teaching your children how to cooperate with and love each other while they are young, the consequences could be grave.
Not intervening in sibling conflicts does more damage, not less. Many parents believe that siblings stop fighting by the teenage years. That is a delusion.
“My sister is so mean to me,” one 11-year-old boy told ChildLine, a teen-crisis help website in the United Kingdom. “She tells me I’m stupid and makes up all these horrible things about me. Mum and Dad don’t do anything to stop it. I cry almost every night and am so angry with everyone. Sometimes I want to disappear.”
In her study, Tucker discovered that even one act of sibling aggression can lead to mental distress. Continual acts of aggression can lead to anger, anxiety and depression. Many adult siblings who have been subjected to aggressive and emotionally disturbing sibling rivalry hold their parents responsible because they did not act to stop the problem.
Do your children bicker, fight and continually work to get the best of each other? Is your home a war zone? We can all agree that sibling rivalry is as old as the human family—yet does that fact give you a pass to ignore the problem?
While sibling rivalry cannot be completely eliminated, it can be controlled and strongly curtailed. However, it is up to you to take action. Truly, you are responsible to handle sibling rivalry. Here are some tips to get you started.
Don’t Stir Up Jealousy
Human history is full of famous sibling rivalries. Cain was jealous of his brother Abel and killed him. Jacob worked hard to get the best of Esau and scammed him out of his birthright. Judah concocted the plan to sell his half-brother Joseph into slavery. God gave us these examples to teach us how to deal with the problem.
Although not said overtly, the parents of these youths contributed significantly to the problems between their children. To prevent or stop such discord, you must take a hard look at yourself first in one particular area: favoritism. Parents can unwittingly escalate a sibling war by unfairly treating one child better than another.
Eve likely favored Cain—her first little darling—over Abel. There is indication that she may have believed Cain was the prophesied Messiah to come (Genesis 3:15). When God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and not his, Cain could not handle it. Isaac favored Esau over Jacob, even though he knew the prophecy given to Rebekah that God had selected Jacob to receive the birthright (Genesis 25:23). Rebekah favored Jacob over Esau and led the conspiracy to get the birthright inheritance away from him (verse 28). Jacob clearly loved Joseph more than all his other children (Genesis 37:3). These parents were actively feeding already troubled situations. We can learn much from their experience.
Understand Human Nature
Accept the fact that children will compete even from a young age. Jacob and Esau were already going after each other in Rebekah’s womb (Genesis 25:22). That fact should have alerted Rebekah and Isaac to not play favorites with their sons.
Do you understand that all siblings will naturally compete and be jealous of each other? It is an aspect of human nature. To effectively deal with sibling rivalry, you must understand human nature.
What is human nature? Herbert Armstrong taught that it is actually Satan’s nature. Satan broadcasts his self-centered, selfish attitudes and moods into the unsuspecting minds of human beings—including children (Ephesians 2:2). It is the devil that broadcasts a spirit of competition into your child’s mind. This is a powerful force that must be reckoned with.
Competition is a major part of Satan’s thinking, as Mr. Armstrong wrote in The Incredible Human Potential: “He reasoned that competition would be better than cooperation. It would be an incentive to excel, to try harder, to accomplish. There would be more pleasure in serving self and more enjoyment.”
It is our job to teach our children to think and act differently—to love and cooperate with siblings.
Be Fair—Don’t Compare
Since children are always naturally looking for a competitive edge over siblings, you need to look for ways to dull the blade. Guard carefully what you say about each of your children in the presence of siblings. Set a goal to not make comparisons.
For example, my wife and I raised four daughters. We made sure to never say one daughter’s hair was blonder, thicker or curlier than the others’. We never said one could run faster, jump higher or skip better than the others. If one was clearly good at some skill or venture, we would acknowledge it. Yet, we looked for an equally good quality or accomplishment to praise—at an appropriate time—in our other daughters as well. We looked for ways to praise the girls equally, to give them equal hugs and equal time alone with us.
There were times our children tried to draw us into making comparisons between them. One daughter would work us by wanting us to say she was better than her sisters. The conversation would go something like: “Dad, I can draw better than (sister), right?” Beware that trap. I might answer, “You have a talent for drawing and (sister) has a talent for sewing. Both are very creative.” Had I responded with a simple yes, I would have given a “one up” to the daughter asking the question. By explaining the fact that each daughter held a unique talent that was very creative, I kept the playing field even.
Be sure to discuss your children’s weaknesses privately, without the other siblings present. When one of your children needs to be corrected, do that behind closed doors, away from the others. Even if two of our daughters got into trouble together, we corrected each child privately. Following this technique faithfully will severely reduce the amount of ammunition your children can aim at each other.
One very important point you should emphasize regularly with your children is that you love all of them equally!
Establish Just Rules, Equal Punishment
Establish clearly defined rules to keep the peace in your home. You could call it your family non-aggression pact. Here are some ideas you can include in your pact.
If a disagreement begins to flare into an argument, make sure your children come to you for arbitration so a fight does not begin. However, if a fight occurs, be sure to discipline all involved. Teach your children that fighting does not solve problems.
After you establish the rules, you must also establish the penalties for all violations of the rules. Be sure your children understand that consequences will have to be paid for all pact violations. Naturally, not all violations of the rules would carry the same weight, so punishments should vary. For example, biting, kicking, slapping, or screaming should carry a heavier punishment than wearing clothes without permission. However, if one sibling continually ignores the rule on clothing, then a more severe penalty may be necessary.
Above all, enforce the rules consistently, equally and equitably. This will prove to be the real secret to your success. Lasting peace in your home is the product of right and stable government (Isaiah 9:7). Never abdicate the government or give complete self-rule to your children. Although your children may complain about your strictness at times, in the long run they will love you more for your commitment to their protection.
Monitor Your Children
Experience taught my wife and me that we had to continually monitor our girls’ activities and interpersonal relationships with each other (Deuteronomy 6:7). For example, when situations flared up and the girls did not come to us for mediation, we always investigated the cause of the problem. These investigations were often quite revealing.
Working through their squabbles with them, we learned the valuable lesson illustrated in Proverbs 18:17. Many times the daughter who appeared most guilty was not the guilty party at all. More than once we discovered that our younger daughters were the culprits. Parents, learn to be good sleuths!
Here is one final point to deeply consider. When our daughters did get into an occasional fight, we did not compromise on disciplining all involved. Although one or two may be the guiltiest, we held the others involved responsible to come get us to solve the disagreement. If they did not come to us, we considered them accomplices in the crime. We were amazed at how much less fighting there was in our home. We discovered that painful enforcement on a child’s bottom at the right time is an effective teacher.
With time, hard effort, continual teaching and experience, your non-aggression pact will work out well for you. Our girls—now mature married ladies—are wonderful, loving friends with each other. Do they have disagreements at times? Yes. However, we are comforted because we know that we taught them how to work through them. Establish a non-aggression pact for your family. Then, enjoy the peace—no kidding!