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'Hey, That's My Shirt!' The Dangers and Benefits of Sibling Wars

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Wendy Walsh: I can hear the screaming now. My 12-year-old (who weighs 100 pounds more than my shrimpy 7-year-old) is running in terror as her naughty "little angel" sister bids for attention by chasing her with a threatening hairbrush, determined to play "beauty shop" with a tender head. The frantic wails conjure up news stories out of war zones. And my blood boils. Why do these sisters -- who should be loving and supporting each other -- fight so much? And what am I to do about it?
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Years ago, a behaviorist instructed me to "ignore" the fighting because, she said, it is competition for my attention. She also told me that if left to their own devices, my girls will learn to negotiate and develop a relationship without my help.

That therapist had never faced the tenacity of my two. If their wars are ignored, they escalate into potentially criminal acts, and if left to "sort things out" alone, my two only make a truce to continue the fight for life. I know my intervention is required, but when and how much? Now, new research on the quality and effects of sibling rivalry is beginning to provide answers for parents like me.

While it is normal for siblings to fight, new research shows that certain types of fights can have serious effects on the quality of sibling relationships, and that the way parents intervene can make a difference in how our kids relate to everyone. Researchers at the University of Missouri found that fights centered on personal space -- borrowing one's property or rifling through rooms and drawers without permission -- are most injurious to older siblings, who are craving some autonomy. These kinds of fights can have long-term negative outcomes on sibling relationships in terms of trust and communication. According to the researchers, parents would do well to enforce strict boundaries on sharing stuff and entering private spaces.

On the other hand, the same study showed that fights having to do with fairness (as in, "Her piece is bigger! No fair!") have less negative effects on sibling relationships. Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois, devotes most of her time to sibling issues. (She is the creator of the successful "More Fun with Sisters and Brothers" program.) She says that parents should concentrate on the positive things they can do to help their children get along. Breaking up fights by separating kids and sending them to their respective rooms gives them little chance to learn important skills of conflict resolution, Kramer says. According to ScienceDaily.com, some of Kramer's tips for teaching cooperation include the following:

  • Help your children learn to see things from their sibling's perspective and to respect other people's points of view.
  • Teach them to identify and manage their emotions and behaviors when they're in challenging and frustrating situations.
  • Teach your kids not to assume the worst about their sibling's (or anyone else's) intentions.
  • Show them that conflict is a problem that can be solved, and teach them how to do it.
  • Try to meet each child's unique needs without showing favoritism.
  • Teach them to use their unique knowledge of each other to strengthen their bond, rather than using it to take advantage of each other's weaknesses.
  • Promote play, conversation, mutual interests and fun.
  • Praise your kids when they help, support and cooperate with each other.
OK, Dr. Kramer, I'm on it. I will sit my little hellions down, teach the little one empathy for the big one's tender head and ban the hairbrush pilfering. As for the older one, I'll teach her not to assume that her sister is intent on ruining her life, but instead is using a backwards way to get attention. Wish me luck. I've got to stop the screaming first. This could get ugly.


next: Drowning of 6 Black Youths a Powerful Lesson for Black Parents
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