It's not fair! Why does my sister get to... ?

Relationship | July. 25, 2017

It's not fair! She always gets to go first! It's not fair! Why do I have to go to bed and he gets to stay up? It's not fair! You gave her a bigger piece!

Sound familiar? Most parents know all too well the refrain of It's not fair! We are well acquainted with it, and we are exhausted by it. The fact is, we cannot divide the cake in perfectly equal halves, younger kids usually need to go to bed earlier than older brothers and sisters, and it's always going to be someone's turn to go last. Childhood is filled with frustrating moments. While we do what we can to make our kids are happy, there are countless times when we can't.

Sibling relationships offer one of the greatest gifts of childhood: the opportunity to develop resilience by living through disappointment. But there is a catch: Simply watching our kids suffer through frustration without offering a kind word can leave them feeling alone in the storm of their feelings. And scolding them for complaining about perceived injustices does nothing to address the problem at its root. What does help kids handle sibling rivalry is knowing they can feel jealous, irritated, or simply weary of having to share the cookies-- without being shamed or lectured about how life "isn't fair." If James is upset because sister Madeline gets to go first on the swing, Mom acknowledges it without delivering a long-winded explanation... or berating him for being angry. You really wanted to go first.

It's hard to wait when you want to get on the swing so badly. Without engaging in a heated argument about "fairness," young James feels understood, and heated negotiations may be averted. But not always. Many kids will harangue us with But, why? WHY, can't I go first on the swing? Here is how I see it: When a child is calm and rational, it may help to offer reasons to assuage their hurt or irritation. But this only works when his left brain -- the side that processes logic and language -- is on board.

When a child is upset, that left logical brain goes offline and he moves over to his right, emotional brain. This part of the brain is all about feelings. If we bombard him with words and explanations while he's being held captive by big, messy feelings -- perhaps jealousy, hurt, frustration, or anger -- our words fly out the window and the sibling rivalry worsens.

My advice? Stay present and available without taking the bait and trying to convince your child not to be upset. Recognize that "But WHY?" is code for, I wish I could have what I want. Lecturing him about the importance of taking turns, or warning him that no one is going to want to be his friend if he can't share may be good advice when the dust settles, but not in the midst of an emotional storm.

Siblings who are raised by parents who understand and normalize their feelings of jealousy get a head start in developing healthy relationships as adults. It may be difficult to deal with those endless complaints in the moment, but very much worth it.

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