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Family Life | Dealing with Sibling Rivalry

Sibling rivalry is said to be common in many families. However, it should not be accepted as “normal” since it produces unnecessary pain and could lead to family dysfunction if not addressed. It is inevitable because of our human tendency towards selfishness and sin, and children are quite raw and transparent in what they feel and act out. But rivalry among siblings should never be tolerated in the home where one needs love and support the most. However, parents could be passive in dealing with it or unwittingly even foster it among their children.

We find a number of sibling rivalries occurring in biblical families. From them, we learn the forces that fueled the rivalry, the root causes, and the results when left unchecked. In the case of Cain and Abel, jealousy motivated Cain. He was a farmer who offered the fruit of his crop while his brother Abel was a shepherd who offered the best of his flock. God accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, and God pointed out the reason – the attitude of their hearts. Cain’s heart was described as “wicked,” which all the more became evident when he chose to kill his brother out of jealousy. We noted in a past article the rivalry between Jacob and Esau, fueled by parental favoritism that drove them apart. In last week’s article, we also saw the rivalry between Leah and Rachel for loving and marrying the same man because of their father’s deception to substitute Leah on her sister’s supposed wedding night. Jealousy due also to paternal favoritism triggered the wedge between Joseph and his brothers who plotted to kill him but were persuaded to sell him instead. From these cases, we see that the child’s heart, the situation, and the parents play key roles in stoking or stopping sibling rivalry.

So how does one prevent normal children fights from progressing to sibling bullying and full-blown sibling rivalry? Parents will have to set the standards of handling conflicts and model it in the way they “fight” as a couple, and in the way they deal with their children that shows respect and resolve conflicts. Parents need to agree on what would constitute as unacceptable behavior in sibling fights, such as, derogatory remarks, physical attacks, nasty looks or gestures, gossip, tattling. These will have to be clearly discussed with the children and given appropriate consequences for violation.

Experts on parent-children communication, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, shared several principles in their book, Siblings Without Rivalry, to help parents deal with this issue. I will highlight a few. The authors listed suggestions on how to handle sibling fights and the parents’ level of involvement. Level I fight – normal bickering – ignore and let the children resolve their conflicts by themselves. Level II – fight is building up – parent may intervene, acknowledge the children’s anger, reflect each child’s point of view, describe with respect the problem, then express confidence in the children’s ability to find their own solution, leave the room to enable them to settle their differences. Level III – children are beginning to hurt each other – the parent could ask, “Is this a play fight or a real fight?” Let the children know that if their play is not fun anymore it’s got to stop. Tell them, “You may be playing but it’s too rough for me. You find another activity.” Level IV – dangerous with two very angry children hurting each other – separate them and give time to cool off before helping them settle their issues.

The authors had other helpful suggestions for the parents to practice. As each child has different strengths, interests, and passions, opportunities given to one child who is really good at something may also be given to others to try out to see if is something they also would enjoy, without comparing them with the gifted one. Its principle was that “No child should be allowed to corner the market on any area of human endeavor. We want to make it clear to each of our children that the joys of scholarship, dance, drama, poetry, sport are for everyone and not reserved for those who have a special aptitude.” (p. 98). They also discourage treating children according to their birth order, like requiring the eldest to set the example or being lax with the youngest.

Parents need to be intentional in feeding love, affection, friendship, and laughter to grow among their children, and nipping fighting, bullying, and rivalry whenever they occur. Philippians 2:3-4 is good principle to instill: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Evelyn Ramos-Pajaron (erpajaron@gmail.com)

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