Sibling rivalries: Athletic struggles and successes in families
The yelling, fighting and physical confrontations between Michelle and Melissa, two years apart, were becoming unbearable.
“The girls had always been inseparable,” Nancy Johns said. “They did everything together since they were old enough to walk.”
At age six, their parents signed them up for the local community softball league. The girls both started in T-ball and progressed through the youth leagues. Both girls had natural athletic ability, and both became valued team members.
“The fighting started out slowly,” Nancy Johns said. “Michelle would tease Melissa saying she was a better player than her younger sister. At first, she would just cry, but it escalated quickly. Eventually, they got into verbal battles that turned into knock down, drag out fights.”
The parents became frustrated. The girls were frustrated. The family seemed to be turned upside down. And it was all over softball.
“Competition, comparison and sibling rivalry are all natural,” according to Nancy Mramor, a licensed psychologist who specializes in health and education issues. “As long as it doesn’t get intense, it is quite normal. If it does get intense, then parents have their work cut out for them.”
Jake and Nick Bortz are four years apart. Nick was more into sports growing up, and seemed to be good at any sport he tried. Nick played hockey and soccer, and he excelled at both.
Jake had no interest in sports for most of his youth, mom Colleen Bortz said. Eventually, he did try both hockey and soccer. Jake also excelled in hockey, but soccer was a bit different.
“If Jake didn’t do well, then he was done,” Colleen Bortz said. “One time his soccer coach told him to be more aggressive, like his brother. After that, he changed. He quit soccer the next season.”
Although both these boys were good at hockey, they never fell into the competition trap. They didn’t go at each other over who is better, and they don’t fight about it. They were both good and they accepted the situation as it was.
“We’ve never had a problem like that,” Colleen Bortz said. “They just didn’t bother each other over sports stuff.”
The public eye shines bright upon some sibling rivalries, such as tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams or football greats Peyton and Eli Manning. Their relationships are very public and the competition doesn’t appear harmful in the least. Everyone involved makes them out to be friendly sibling rivalries.
In many cases, sibling rivalry and competition can actually be a good thing, licensed psychologist Douglas Jones says. They are bound to happen, and unless the kids are hurting one another, or physically causing problems, parents should not intervene.
Mramor and Jones agree that parent’s reaction to their children’s competitive streak and rivalry can make the difference between a happy or combative household.
“Teach them about the nature of competition,” Mramor said. “Conflict resolution is powerful good training for life. Everyone has different issues and conflicts. It forces them to understand the most important thing is to be the best you can be.”
Parents can tend to fuel the fire inadvertently by focusing on the competition, Jones said. They need to remember to focus on each child’s interests and strengths. They can also lead by example.
“Set ground rules for behavior in the household,” Jones said. “Everyone needs to know how to get along – no name calling, cursing or yelling. Express praise for value. Parents need to enforce their own rules.”
Some parents, however, have their own issues with competition. They themselves grew up in intense competitive households. Parents should never encourage the competition.
“You don’t want to say, ‘Your brother gets straight A’s, what about you,” Mramor said. “This causes rivalry and competition, and it makes the children feel bad about themselves.
“Parents need to look at whether competition is constructive or destructive,” Mramor said. “If parents want their children to succeed, the kids need to see competition as a way to be the best performer that they can be. They need to learn to be both good winners and good losers.”
The older sibling can also be helpful in diffusing the situation if they take on a mentoring role.
“Hero worship for an older sibling is normal,” Mramor said. “If the older child understands the role model position, and is sensitive to it, he can change the whole competitive dynamic. He can give the younger child tips on how to be the best player and encourage him by working out together. It changes the whole situation.”
If the problem exists where one child is truly more talented in an area than the other child, parents can help the children from a problem solving point of view. Use it as a life lesson, Jones said. Acknowledge the child’s efforts, but look at whether or not the situation is working. If not, come up with a different solution, perhaps try a different sport or activity.
“Help them to find their own area of excellence or interest,” Jones said. “Talk. Listen. Ask the child to think about what they might want to do.”
It’s important that parents don’t single out any one child. No one needs to feel left out. Spend one-on-one time with each child. Make sure each child knows they are special in their own right. This makes for good connections and relations.
Bill and Nancy Johns worked with their girls. Michelle eventually turned teasng into teaching, giving her younger sister batting and pitching tips. They began to work out in the backyard together instead of constantly fighting.
“Once Michelle started helping her sister instead of teasing her, things got a lot better,” Nancy Johns said. “They are still competitive, but it really toned down.”
Sibling rivalry dates back to biblical times, Jones reminds us: The prodigal son, the worse-case scenario of Cane and Able, etc.
“It is a natural part of growing up. Like anything else, it is all how we deal with it.”