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Sibling wars offer teachable moments

Parents who have a second child sometimes discover Ñ to their distress Ñ that their kids fight.

A lot of moms and dads want to know when sibling rivalry is good, when it's out of hand and what to do about it.

'Sibling and peer relationships provide a foundation for social-skills training, so it's important to assist in resolving conflict while teaching life lessons,' explains Terri Bennink, clinical psychologist and executive director of ParentCare Inc., a Portland-based, nonprofit parent education program.

Good old-fashioned sibling rivalry is innocent in nature. Statements that are motivated by ordinary things Ñ 'Mom, he took my toy,' or 'Mom, she hit me!' Ñ are normal.

Kids argue and fight because of jealousy and competition, because they're tired or bored, or because they're just plain old fussy. These things are part of our natural emotional makeup, so it's important to teach children to manage their feelings while not making them feel shame.

Also, every kid wants to eclipse the other in order to become the shining star. 'The first thing to remember is to avoid comparing children,' Bennink says. 'Comparing creates competition, generates resentment and creates feelings of hopelessness.'

When a conflict does arise, Bennink advises parents to not buy into who did what or who started it. Often, fighting occurs behind a parent's back, and it isn't productive to try to get to the bottom of it. Kids' stories might not match up because they each are relating the event from the perspective of how it made them feel.

If parents start by holding them both responsible, Bennink says, it creates an environment where they can learn compromise and negotiation skills. Separate them, have a 'time out,' then get them together and talk about how they could have handled things differently.

Next, ask each child how he or she felt during the conflict and have them listen to each other's feelings. This fosters empathy and teaches kids to value another person's perspective.

When kids up the ante by fighting with increased frequency or more physicality Ñ which often happens as kids get older Ñ parents need to respond with increased action. Bennink's advice is to acknowledge their anger, describe the problem with respect and express confidence in their ability to resolve the conflict.

Often, parents want to know when such rivalry is out of control and, if so, what to do about it. According to Bennink, it is out of control when it is constant, becomes violent, is damaging to the self-esteem of one or more family members, is related to a psychiatric disorder or drug abuse is involved. In those cases, it's a good idea to seek professional help.

Kids will fight, but their level of conflict and ability to solve problems are learned behaviors that parents can teach, including by the example of resolving their own conflicts in a mature and responsible way.

Contact Diane Dennis-Crosland at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..