If it seems like your grandkids are such fierce rivals they’d be ideal competitors in the Olympic Games, relax. Turns out sibling rivalry is usually a pretty healthy, generally benign behavior (FYI: Research shows that most siblings fight for about 10 minutes per every hour of play when they’re seven years old or younger) that dates back to early evolution. “Thousands of years ago, siblings fought for basic resources like food and water,” says Mindy Utay, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist in New York City. “Today the scarce resource isn’t food and water, but time and attention.”
At the same time, experts believe there is a lot of good that can come from sibling rivalry: Turns out, these conflicts can help inspire your grandchildren to be the best they can be. “Sibling rivalry can help motivate a child to take something on, to do better, or to be inspired,” says Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in Westchester, New York. “It’s actually healthy for kids, so long as they’re not physically and/or emotionally harmful to each other.”
Despite all of this "good" news, the fighting and the arguing can still drive you crazy. Read on as our experts offer four tips for managing even the most competitive of grandchildren.
Get Along Tip #1: Insist on one-on-one time.
By carving out individual time with your grandkids, they’ll feel like they have your undivided attention—even if you have just 10 minutes to offer each one. Try this out next time your grandkids are over: While one grandchild is busy with an activity, spend time with the other. “Do an art project with that grandchild, read with them or dig for worms in the backyard,” says Fran Walfish, PsyD, a family psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California. The other grandchild may get angry, but parents and grandparents need to accept that, says Walfish. And in the end, “that special time with each of them can often derail rivalries,” she says.
Get Along Tip #2: Avoid comparisons.
It’s natural to compare one grandchild to the other, but try not to and, whatever you do, make sure you never tell one grandchild he or she is better or worse at something than the other. It’ll only heighten rivalries. “Instead, always speak to your grandchildren as individuals,” suggests Wokie Nwabueze, a certified mediator who focuses on family life in South Orange, New Jersey. “Err on the side of being evenhanded and make sure the same rules apply to all of your grandchildren. Favoritism will only worsen sibling rivalries that already exist.”
Get Along Tip #3: Encourage their love of each other.
As a grandparent, you can be a real help in fostering close ties between siblings and it’s pretty easy to help things along. For example, when you pick up a grandchild from school, refer to his or her sibling. “Say things like ‘Your little sister really missed you today—she can’t wait to see you,’” advises Utay. “Or, if a grandchild is named after you, resembles you, or has some other likeness that his siblings don’t share, don’t dwell on this or give the message that this grandchild is more special than the other(s).”
Get Along Tip #4: Dig beneath the surface.
If your grandkids can’t seem to stop fighting, try to analyze why this might be happening. Chances are, there’s something deeper going on. “Consider the fact that your grandchild may be grappling with a feeling of diminished attention from you (or his or her parents) or may feel like an accomplishment or effort hasn’t been acknowledged,” Nwabueze says. “Once you’ve identified what’s going on, address it.” Best of all: Your observation will present a teachable moment that you can share. “By encouraging your grandchild to understand and articulate her needs, she may end up doing that next time, instead of picking a fight with her sibling.”
In the end, there’s not much you can do to stop your grandkids from comparing themselves to each other. What you can do is to help them embrace themselves—flaws and all. “We all have imperfections and, as a grandparent, you’re in a perfect position to help your grandkids identify their strengths and embrace the areas they’re working on,” Walfish says. “This is the key to self-esteem.”
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.