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Dealing with Sibling Rivalry

Jon Whittle

When I first brought my daughter, Genie, home from the hospital, I expected a mixed reaction from her big sister, Clara, then 3. It was mixed, all right, a bubbling brew of jealousy and curiosity—but mainly, she was curious about how I'd react if she either poked Genie or hugged her too hard. Concerned, I did what I could to help Clara adjust. We spent quality time alone. I read her those “I'm a Big Sister” books. Finally, one morning she was nothing but nice to Genie. “Good girl!” I gushed (you don't work at Parenting without learning about positive reinforcement). Then I gave her a red lollipop. (Yeah, you also don't work here without learning not to use a treat as a reward, but I was on maternity leave, k?)

I left the room for two minutes, then returned to nurse Genie. As I bent over her bassinet, I stopped in my tracks: She was smeared head to toe with red-lollipop juice.

Welcome to the wonderful world of sibling relationships. That “smear campaign” was just the start of what I've witnessed (and refereed) as my kids have grown—everything from sandbox one-upmanship (who can build a bigger castle?) to tugs-of-war over the Wiimote. Which is not to say my kids aren't attached to each other—when one gets invited on a playdate, the other mopes at home till she returns. So why all the agita?

“The rivalry you see—whether your children are fighting for a toy or the first turn on a swing—is really rooted in a struggle for your love and attention,” says Frances Walfish, Psy.D., a child and family psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, CA, and author of The Self-Aware Parent. “Kids want to know that Mom's and Dad's eyes are on them and them alone.” Which can't happen unless you give away all your little guys except one (admittedly, it can be an appealing thought at certain times). Instead, try these friction-defusing strategies.