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Brawling siblings can test even the most patient parent. Here are some ways to cope

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JONATHAN HILL ILLUSTRATION
  • Jonathan Hill illustration

Craig and Karin Kupp love competing. As two high-performing athletes, they believe sports help reinforce teamwork, discipline and personal achievement. Their four children, including Eastern Washington University football standouts Cooper and Ketner, have grown up in a world of winners and losers.

"It doesn't matter if we're bowling or playing putt-putt," Craig says with a chuckle, "it can be pretty competitive."

"It's friendly competition," Karin notes.

Both Craig and his father played professional football. Cooper, now a wide receiver with the Los Angeles Rams, marks the third generation of Kupps to compete in the NFL. After playing soccer in college, Karin moved on to marathon running and bodybuilding. She now works as a personal trainer.

Raising their children, the Kupps say they have seen many of the tensions and conflicts common to sibling rivalries — the arguing, the button-pushing, the tears. But building family support around sports and other shared goals has also helped turn those spats into opportunities for growth.

Many experts contend that while sibling rivalries can strain family dynamics, they can also provide key lessons on how to resolve disputes and get along in the world.

"It's more about where you put the focus" Craig says. "We're big on team first and you're part of something bigger than yourself."

KJ Dell'Antonia, former editor of the New York Times' Motherlode blog and author of How to Be a Happier Parent, encourages parents to accept some level of bickering or jockeying as natural. Family members serve as safe and convenient foils for children as they test boundaries and absorb social norms.

"They're learning to sort of live with other humans," she says. "It's not just normal, it's actually good for kids to do this jostling."

Balancing when to get involved is often the hard part, Dell'Antonia says. Many parents feel like they have to jump into the middle of arguments to impose a solution. Others will ignore disputes to let kids work it out themselves. (My own parents actually bought boxing gloves so my brother and I could "work it out.")

Dell'Antonia says parents can help make fighting more productive by calling timeouts when arguments escalate and giving children words to communicate their frustrations. Helping younger kids articulate their feelings moves them away from hitting or stealing, so they can talk out issues and seek compromises.

"It's really important that you don't take sides," she adds. "It often looks like there's a right side by the time you walk in ... but you don't know what just happened, or what happened yesterday."

Elisabeth Lindsey, who leads a connection-based parenting group in Spokane and blogs at meditationmama.com, says competing for parental attention often begins early. She says her children — now ages 10 months, 3 years and 6 years — may act out when they feel insecure about their place in the family.

Lindsey says she tries to empower her children by teaching them skills for positive interactions with younger siblings, like helping with diapers or soothing the new baby. They discuss feelings and how a child can advocate for his or her own needs while recognizing siblings' needs as well.

Former EWU player Cooper Kupp, who graduated to the NFL, honed his competitive nature at home with his three siblings. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Former EWU player Cooper Kupp, who graduated to the NFL, honed his competitive nature at home with his three siblings.

"We talk about how our actions can make another person feel," she says. "We try to build empathy and respect. We encourage finding solutions to problems. We have them participate in coming up with ideas."

Her family uses a "Take Two" strategy where both children take a short break from each other and then come back to try to explain their frustrations or make amends for inconsiderate behavior.

Anna Pearson, another mom with the Spokane group, emphasizes the importance of making one-on-one time with each child. She makes an effort to maintain emotional connections with each of her sons as an individual. Experts suggest asking each child about how they feel about siblings to help monitor their relationships.

Pearson says she also notices more arguing and acting out when they get hungry, tired or stressed.

"When my children are happy and healthy and have their cups full," she says, "they are significantly more thoughtful and collaborative with each other."

Some parents say it can be easier to have kids spread out in age, but others say a large age difference creates a power imbalance where older siblings manipulate younger ones. Some parents say different genders have more or less fighting, but that's likely a matter of personal perception.

What seems to matter most is how parents model positive conflict resolution and work to make children feel validated outside of their roles as a siblings. Encourage siblings to empathize and look out for each other. Maybe skip the boxing gloves.

The good news? The Kupps, and many other parents, say sibling rivalries tend to fade as children become more comfortable with their own identities and more self-aware in their relationships. Karin Kupp says while parents can teach children how to challenge themselves without comparing themselves to others, it does take time.

"Being your best self does have to be learned," she says.

TIPS FOR PARENTS

Encourage children to take the lead in solving disputes. Work with them to talk through feelings or make amends. Give them ownership of the conflict resolution process.

Steer clear of comparing siblings to one another. Recognize the individual and unique strengths of each child.

Avoid taking sides. It may look like one child was clearly at fault, but it can be hard to know how far back the dispute goes. And you may add to a pre-existing power imbalance.

Explain to children that "fair" is not always "equal." Older kids get special privileges, but also more responsibility. Some kids may need more attention as they cope with medical or developmental issues.

Make tasks cooperative instead of competitive. Have kids work together to clean up messes instead of racing each other.

Remember to acknowledge good behavior. Parents often ignore the actions they consider normal. They come swooping in for conflicts, but focus on those times when kids cooperate or share toys.

Schedule quality one-on-one time with each child to nurture that personal connection and check in on their relationships with other siblings.

Rotate who gets to make decisions or receives special privileges. If one child picked the family movie yesterday, someone else picks today.