Making sure #2 doesn’t feel second best

Sometimes avoiding comparisons between siblings and making each child feel valued can be challenging. Find out how to encourage harmonious sibling relationships.

Isabelle Richard has two daughters; Cecilia is an introverted 4-year-old and Kathrina is a 6-year-old extrovert. She says because of her eldest daughter’s outgoing personality, she takes up all the space and the younger one just follows her around.

“I’m always worried that Cecilia is going to grow up feeling second best and I’m not sure I’m doing enough to make sure that doesn’t happen,” says Richard, who is the creative art director for Montreal Families.

“I’m concerned that feeling second best as a kid will lead to insecurities in adulthood,” she explains. “Cecilia is always second at doing everything like learning to ride her bike or to starting to skip rope or going to kindergarten. I feel like she is always playing catch up.”

Another issue that can provoke feelings of “second-best” is hand-me-downs. Richard says she will sometimes compensate by buying things for Cecilia even if she doesn’t need them just so she’ll have something new. And when the time came for Cecilia to inherit Kathrina’s bicycle, Richard dressed it up with sparkly streamers on the handlebars and a new basket to make it seem new and different.

Nathalie Hazan, a marital and family therapist, suggests parents play up the positive with hand-me-downs. “Perhaps you can talk to them about how passing items down from one person to the other is good for the environment and discuss with them who they will pass the clothes or bike down to when they outgrow them.”

However, if your child balks at, once again, having to wear an older sibling’s skates or skis, sweeten the deal with something small. An evening alone with dad at the movies, an iTunes download or even a stuffed animal may be a very small price to pay compared to brand new versions of big ticket items.

In many families, it is the younger kids who often feel like they always get the used equipment or clothes. So don’t miss out on opportunities to have your older kids get second-hand things from a neighbour or older cousin, for example.

Feeling second best — or even worried that you don’t measure up to other siblings — can make kids become very competitive, as a way to gain attention, love and a space of their own.

Rachelle Sochaczevski, mother of four, says she keeps a close eye on the level of competition between her two oldest sons, Jonathan, 11, and Noah, 9. “Noah is my most sensitive kid. He and Jonathan are two years apart, but they are one year apart at school. Noah always compares himself to [his older brother].”

When she realized Noah was being consistently beaten by his older brother at every game they played, she told Jonathan he had to start letting him win. “I explained to him how this was making Noah feel, and how he had to be helpful and nurturing. He understood. And it made a world of difference to Noah. He went from being crushed and feeling terrible about himself to saying, ‘Wow, I beat Jonathan!’”

Dr. Rina Gupta, professor in the Department of Education and Counselling Psychology at McGill University, sees competition as a normal, healthy impulse that can easily get out of hand. She suggests parents respond by “emphasizing that winning or getting the highest grades are not the most important aspects of success, and that everyone has their own unique strengths and weaknesses.”

Sochaczevski feels these kinds of discussions about sensitivity are very important for her family dynamics. “I talk to Noah about how it feels to be Jonathan and I talk with Jonathan about how it must feel for Noah to never, ever win against him.”

In her work as a therapist helping families, Hazan has seen the positive benefits that come when parents give each kid room to be good at something all on their own. “Find something that the younger child is good at, something different from the others. Every child has something they shine at. It can be the tiniest thing like being a great hugger.”

Parents should try to focus on the positive benefits living with siblings brings rather than worrying about the negatives, suggests Hazan. Dealing with siblings teaches all family members invaluable lessons about how to get along with others.

“Children are going to learn more about resolving conflict at home than in any other environment.” As long as they are steered away from violent or aggressive behaviour, parents can help them figure out together how to manage strong emotions. “That will serve them forever.”

Finally, make sure to talk to your kids about all these issues. Kids will be relieved to know their parents recognize if they feel overshadowed, and the encouragement you offer can be its own reward.

Books help parents deal with sibling rivalry

Once you have more than one child, you’re going to face the issues of sibling rivalry. Helping each family member feel valued and loved can sometimes be a challenge. Here are some books that offer practical ideas and suggestions for creating a more harmonious family life.

Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (Harper Publishing, $18)—First published in 1988, this book has been a bestseller ever since thanks to the authors’ encouraging tone and sensible ideas on how parents can avoid comparing their kids. Faber and Mazlish walk parents through real-life conflicts, offering tips on what to say (and not to say) to restore peace in the home.

Mom, Jason’s Breathing On Me
by Anthony Wolfe (Ballantine, $15). Psychologist Anthony Wolfe suggests that most sibling arguments are designed to get one or both parents on a child’s side, so his solution is for parents to take a hands-off approach to sibling fights (as long as there is no violence involved). Wolfe’s ideas may come as a shock to today’s hands-on parents but he provides compelling evidence of the benefits of this approach.

Beyond Sibling Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Become Cooperative, Caring and Compassionate by Peter Goldenthal (Holt, $17). If you want to understand the many factors that influence sibling relationships (from their birth order to issues such as self-esteem and learning difficulties), this book by psychologist Peter Goldenthal will help. While readers learn some practical strategies for managing sibling conflict, the book has a more global focus on helping adults understand — and change — their family dynamics.