Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers

“I wish I had Ross’s parents” – Monica Geller, sister of Ross on “Friends”
Modern Family, Claire and Mitchell, Alex and Hailey
Bart and Lisa Simpson on the “The Simpsons”
Cain and Abel
You get the idea, the list goes on and on.

I have a vivid image of the first time I heard Tommy Smothers say “Mom always liked you best”. It was an epiphany for me – you can say that out loud? You can acknowledge those feelings? I also have a strong memory of sitting with my kids watching Roseanne Barr. It’s a close up of Roseanne sitting on Darlene’s bed and kissing her goodnight and she says “You are my favorite daughter”. I was a little uncomfortable. Then she moved across the room to Becky’s bed and kissed her goodnight and said “You are my favorite daughter”. It helped my kids to be able to laugh about those desires to be the favorite. When issues are unspeakable they have so much more power.

Birth order is a factor in our personalities. When you meet someone who is a twin, what is often your first question? Which one of you was born first? How many or your friends do you know their birth order? We live in a world that often focuses on vertical rather than horizontal definitions of value. People want to know a person’s status to know how to relate to him/her. People may be less interested in the contributions a person makes to the group than their status in the group. This stratification begins in the family. Who is the oldest? Biggest? Strongest? Smartest? Most athletic? Best behaved? Most loved?

Every child is born into the second act of a play and must create their own role.

Here are some pointers for decreasing the level of sibling rivalry.

  • Don’t take sides during conflicts. Allow your children to work out their own problems as much as possible. If someone is getting hurt, separate them in positive time-outs. When you play judge and jury, part of the intensity of the conflicts is who Mom or Dad choose. Even the ‘victim’ is making choices and may have played an antagonistic role that is less obvious.
  • Put them in the same boat: “If you can’t share the toys, we’ll need to put them away.”
  • Change the arena: “Take it outside” (sometimes when the parents can’t hear the conflict it loses intensity).
  • Put them in charge: “I think you two can work this out.”
  • Acknowledge hateful/jealous feelings. One day my five-year-old son came to me and I said “I hate him!” I was just about to say “no, you don’t, he’s your brother” when the intensity of his feelings reminded me of similar feelings I had about my siblings when I was a child. So, instead, I said “I remember feeling that way about your uncle”. His whole body relaxed. It didn’t make the problem go away, but it was comforting to know that these are not uncommon feelings and people can move on from them.
  • Use reflective listening – “You sound furious”
  • Encourage your child to put feelings into words, “What about your sister is so maddening?” You don’t need to agree or disagree.
  • Use imagination: “Wouldn’t it be great if you never had to share anything?” “Do you wish you could be the big sister?” What would you like best about being an only child?
  • Celebrate each child’s uniqueness, but without labeling.
  • Avoid even the positive labels: Rachel is our serious student, Justin is the athlete. Let each child have access to each role.
  • Don’t compare – ever! Instead of “I wish you could take care of your things like David does.” Say: “I see your toys are all over the yard.”
  • Favoritism: recognize your own prejudices: birth order, introvert/extrovert, personality styles, interests – be aware of how you may, even inadvertently, be showing favoritism.
  • Give according to individual needs – avoid always trying to be fair.

In response to “David got more…..” Say “Are you still hungry?” “Do you need some attention?” “Do you wish you had a new toy too?” You don’t need to buy the new toy – just acknowledge the feeling and, depending on the issue, talk about plans: “When we get home lets spend some time building with legos.” Do not get sucked into their comparisons, if you count out the strawberries, you are agreeing that everything has to be equal.

  • Strategies for creating a less competitive environment
  • Model the behaviors you want to see.
  • Express your feelings in words.
  • Don’t resort to name-calling.
  • Put yourself into a time-out when you feel you are unable to respond rationally.
  • Use problem-solving skills: “What can we do about this?”
  • Use encouragement.
  • Get along with your siblings.
  • Emphasize teamwork: chores, family meetings.
  • Recognize the importance of learning to deal with conflicts.
  • Teach empathy. Ask kids to imagine what someone else is feeling. A good way to do this is with books and movies. Here’s a list. I’ve also included a list of resources for parents that do a good job of addressing sibling issues.

Resources: Kvols, K. Redirecting Children’s Behavior
McKay, Gary Raising Respectful Kids in a Rude World
Faber, Adele & Mazlish, Elaine Siblings Without Rivalry Thought provoking perspective on bully/victim roles.
Kyla Boyse,