Harbaugh Brothers: A Healthy Sibling Rivalry?

How to nurture healthy sibling relationships.

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After a ferocious Super Bowl, John Harbaugh, whose Baltimore Ravens emerged victorious over his brother Jim's San Francisco 49ers, embraced his sibling on the field. John reportedly told his brother he loved him, and Jim said congratulations.

That bittersweet reunion amid one of, if not the, most intense competitions in American sports, may perhaps serve to inspire the countless people whose relationships with their siblings leave a lot to be desired.

The relationships we have with our siblings are typically our longest ones in life. But very often, they are filled with conflict. In fact, 44 percent of adults admit to "serious contentions" with a sibling, and such unresolved strife amounts to the leading source of regret late in life, says psychotherapist Jeanne Safer, author of Cain's Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy and Regret. "It's one of the last taboos," says Safer, who herself was estranged from her older brother.

As indicated by the book's title, sibling rivalry is ancient; that function of evolution which spurs the competitive spirit causes children to vie for their parents' love and attention, Safer says.

To put it in more familiar terms, it's the "Hey, no fair!" argument heard so often among children.

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"While sibling rivalry may always exist, sibling fighting does not have to," says Jerry Weichman, a psychologist with the Calif.-based Hoag Neurosciences Institute. "Parents need to communicate to their children early and often the importance of loving and respecting their siblings. By reiterating to their children that friends will come and go but family is for life, parents help foster positive bonds," he says. "It is also imperative that parents regularly identify individual positive attributes or behaviors for each of their kids and be sure to keep the praise equally. When it comes to sibling relationships, kids constantly keep score."

In the 60 interviews she conducted with estranged adult siblings for Cain's Legacy, parental favoritism always played a role, Safer says. Pent-up resentment shows up in what she calls "sibspeak," passive-aggressive language that goes something like this: "I wouldn't know. I don't have a country house," or "Dad always gave you better presents," she says.

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So, how can parents try to avoid such an endgame? You can't guarantee your children will always get along or even become friends, says Harley Rotbart, professor and vice chair of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children's Hospital Colorado and author of No Regrets Parenting. "But as a general rule, solid families when kids are younger result in solid sibling relationships as the kids become adults."

"Insist on kindness," says psychologist Eileen Kennedy Moore, a mother of four and author of What About Me? 12 Ways to Get your Parents' Attention Without Hitting Your Sister. "Create a climate where the siblings are encouraging each other or congratulating each other or consoling each other if things don't go well," she says. "If sibling competition happens in that context, then it's just easier to handle ... no matter which sibling wins, the family wins."

For example, Kennedy Moore had a client whose younger child insisted on making everything into a competition. So, each time the younger child would gloat over a newfound victory, she instructed the older child to respond with "congratulations." Eventually this became boring to the younger child, who stopped the endless competitions.

When it comes to sibling fighting, parenting experts suggest varied responses, from when to intervene to the extent to which one should punish the children, if at all.

Rotbart advises parents to "stop the fight, hear both sides, make a decision regarding whether any action by the parent is required to address the source of conflict and, most importantly, have the kids immediately hug and apologize to each other—regardless of whether they feel they owe an apology or not. The fight needs to stop on the spot, and the kids need to be reminded they are, and should forever remain, each other's best friend."