Q: I have a problem with rivalry among my three children: 10- and 14-year-old girls, and a 13-year-old boy.
The older two claim to "hate" the youngest, and by their actions, this does appear to be the case. Arguments, fights and tattling abound. Even dad gets irritated with the youngest, and when I confront him, he says he doesn't know why. She is beautiful, smart, social, athletic and gifted, as are the other two. All three kids are straight-"A" students. Their father is somewhat controlling, pessimistic and demanding, and not involved much in the children's events, activities and schooling. We are unfortunately headed for divorce after 16 years, as it is not a model relationship for our kids, and I am very unhappy. The rivalry has been ongoing for as long as I can remember, and although there are many big changes coming, I am hoping for some guidance in moving forward.
A: You have a difficult dilemma. Your teenage kids are probably at the most difficult ages for divorce. Whether you and your husband argue overtly or are passive-aggressively to each other, they're watching and taking sides. It seems as if the two older children and your husband don't accept the youngest child. I'm guessing the two oldest side with their dad, and your youngest daughter sides with you. Helping you with this issue would take counseling, and even that wouldn't necessarily work.
The best message you can give to your children is that other friends will come and go, but their siblings are friends forever and that both you and your husband agree that you want them to always be best friends. If you can't convince your husband to be more accepting of your youngest child, obviously it will be difficult to change the older children's attitudes.
Older children typically adore the youngest child, because they've often helped to care for her and teach her things. If siblings resent a youngest child, they usually view that child as getting more attention, more material possessions and less responsibility. To help all of your children see that privileges and responsibilities increase with age, you can point out how your younger daughter's privileges and responsibilities match those they had at similar ages.
Since all three children are very high-achieving, they may also be highly competitive and may worry that their younger sister is smarter than they are. Older kids do often try to make younger kids feel "dumb" to prove how smart they are. It's nice to reassure the kids that they have a "whole smart family."
Youngest children sometimes whine and cry a lot. You haven't mentioned that at all, but if it is the case, you'll want to be sure to refuse to respond to the whining, which is annoying to all and often especially noticeable to fathers.
It sounds as if you're very clear about your decision to divorce. I strongly recommend that you see a counselor to discuss this carefully before you make a final decision. If there is any way that marriage counseling can improve the quality of your marriage and keep you together until your children are in college, the breakup will be much easier on the children by then. Even if you decide to divorce, counseling can help you to have a fair and more respectful divorce, which can minimize the children's struggles.
You should know that there is always sibling rivalry, so that's normal. The "hate" word is less common among siblings, although there are often moments that kids will feel and talk that way. They usually acknowledge that they really love each other, but don't always get along. If your children also say that they love each other, you can feel a little less concerned about the rivalry.
For free newsletters about sibling competition and/or helping children after divorce, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the address below. Dr. Sylvia B. Rimm is the director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the author of many books on parenting. More information on raising kids is available at www.sylviarimm.com. Please send questions to: Sylvia B. Rimm on Raising Kids, P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI 53094 or [email protected] To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.