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How to handle sibling rivalry

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By Gail Belsky
From Your Family Today 

The arguing, teasing and endless competition between your kids may drive you nuts, but a bit of sibling rivalry is actually good for them, according to research conducted by the University of Cambridge. The 2011 study showed that interaction between siblings -- even when it's negative -- boosts cognitive and social development and sharpens relationship-building skills.

Generally, parents should stay out of sibling squabbles and let their kids work it out themselves. But if the fighting is constant, intense or physical -- or if your kids don't make up in a day -- it's time to intervene, according to family psychologist Peter Goldenthal, author of Beyond Sibling Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Become Cooperative, Caring and Compassionate.

"You're not going to have siblings without some competition, but there's a huge difference between conflict and rivalry, and rivalry and bullying," says Goldenthal. Here's how to handle sibling rivalry so that it's healthy -- not harmful.

Know when sibling squabbles turn into bullying.

The three things to look out for is an uneven distribution of power (older siblings harassing younger ones), threats by one sibling that things will get worse if the other one "tells," and intentionally rough behavior. In these cases, parents have to intervene because the situation won't get better by itself, according to Goldenthal. Especially if one sibling is threatening the other, "You have to show the person who reports it to you that it is better to be the whistle-blower," he says.

Talk about it later, when things are good.

When you catch your kids sharing, cooperating and being nice to each other, call attention to it. Tell them they're doing what family members should do: be good to each other, not of fight with each other. Say, "Isn't this great? I bet you feel good about how you're getting along."

Watch out for favoritism.

Sometimes sibling rivalry stems from a perception of favoritism -- and not necessarily over the kids themselves, according to Goldenthal. Parents may favor the activities of one child over those of the other, eagerly attending all the soccer games but few of the recitals or dance shows. Try to show equal levels of interest in each sibling's activities and accomplishments, even if it's not your personal favorite.

Get to the ‘why.
You can try asking your kids straight out why they fight, but don't expect a real answer. Instead, Goldenthal suggests saying, "I wonder what was going on with you when you were doing this." Sometimes kids just need to vent, and by listening, you teach them that there's a better way to express their emotions than by arguing.

Walk away.
Once you're sure the sibling rivalry between your kids isn't extreme or potentially damaging, don't intervene during their fights. "It's like being the lifeguard when nobody's drowning," says Goldenthal. You especially want to stay away if their bickering is making you angry. "When children are doing certain things to each other and somebody's going to be upset, it shouldn't be the parent," he adds.

One way to keep from getting annoyed is to remember that sibling rivalry can be a valuable learning tool for kids. When handled correctly, their arguing can help them build social skills that will last a lifetime.

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