"Daddy, she took my toy!" "Mommy, why can't you hold me and the baby?" "You love him more!" If you are a parent of more than one child, you have heard these pleas at one time or another. Each child is vying for the attention of his or her parents. It is sibling rivalry at its best.

"Daddy, she took my toy!"

"Mommy, why can't you hold me and the baby?"

"You love him more!"

If you are a parent of more than one child, you have heard these pleas at one time or another. Each child is vying for the attention of his or her parents. It is sibling rivalry at its best.

It involves jealousy, fighting and competition. It usually lasts throughout childhood and can be a big source of stress for parents. There are many ways parents can address some of these issues and bring a little more harmony into their children's lives.

If a new baby is on the way, most experts believe it's best to involve children before the baby actually arrives.

"Allow the older child to be part of the physical change that the mother goes through, like talking to the baby and feeling the baby grow. This helps develop the relationship before the baby is even here," said Judy Wood, program coordinator for the Art of Positive Parenting at Action for Children.

Kelly Hawkins, mother of three, prepared her older children by reading "I'm a Big Brother" by Joanna Cole, and talking about the baby and what they could expect.

"Make them feel that they are going to be very important to that new sibling. Give them jobs like drawing pictures to decorate the nursery or getting bottles out of the refrigerator. Little things they are capable of doing let them feel helpful, involved and still an important part of the family," said Angela Oswalt, LSW, Nationwide Children's Hospital.

Parents need to realize that it's normal and healthy for children to feel jealous of a new baby. Older children realize that the attention is no longer on them and the new baby is in the spotlight.

"It is important that they still have some one-on-one time with Mom or Dad. They need to feel they have a special role in the family," said Oswalt.


Establish ground rules
Once the children are old enough, it's important for parents to set up some family ground rules. Here are a few common rules:
No hurting -- hitting, pinching, kicking, biting, etc. No yelling, name calling or tattling. Whoever demands to be first is automatically last. If a toy is fought over, the toy goes into time-out. "Set limits on what you will tolerate and what you won't tolerate. Then you really enforce the rules," said Christine Kinney, Mom Coach from Fresh Strategies.

Judy Wood stresses that parents need to teach children good habits and ways to deal with anger and frustration.


Avoid favoritism
Some good advice for parents is to cultivate the positive, unique and special attributes in each child.

Oswalt encourages siblings to support each other's interests and activities. "That way it reduces any sort of competition. They don't have to feel like they are competing with their sibling for their parent's positive attention, and they can encourage the other sibling," said Oswalt.

Another way to address favoritism is to make an effort to spend one-on-one time with each child.

"My husband and I really make an effort to give each child some alone time with both of us. Also, I try to make sure that each child is heard, and that we compromise as fairly as possible," said Hawkins.


Work it out
Fighting with a sibling is a normal part of your child's life. Even at a young age they are learning how to get along with others and how to resolve their conflicts.

"They are going to have to deal with difficult people all their lives, so it's just a skill they are going to have to learn," said Kinney.

Parents should remember not to jump in to try to solve every argument children have. Instead, parents need to prompt their children to settle disagreements and give them tools to help them work it out.

Oswalt suggests that parents should sit down with children and use prompts. "How can we settle this?", "How can we work this out together?", "Can we figure out how to solve this problem?", "Would you like some help?"

"Kids love it when you write down what they say because they feel heard," said Wood. "You are not going to avoid the conflicts. They are going to happen no matter how much they love each other and get along. It's okay because that is a normal part of human nature and relationships."

Hawkins uses a method of sharing and taking turns. She also uses the two-minute countdown when children fight over the same toy. We say "Two minutes and it will be your brother's turn with the toy."

"We give a one-minute warning, and usually the child will voluntarily give up the toy after the two minutes. If they are fighting over a toy and just won't work out a resolution, then I threaten to put the toy on top of the refrigerator so nobody can play with it. It always works. One of them gives it up voluntarily," said Hawkins.


Advice on building strong sibling relationships
"As soon as kids are old enough to play with each other and do things together, we encourage that. It's good to have the parent involved in doing some of that too, so it's an all-around relationship," said Wood.

In addition to encouraging her children to play together, Hawkins has her oldest son tell her two nice things about his younger brother each night at bedtime.

"I want him to develop an appreciation for his brother and realize he is an important part of his life and not just someone that steals his toys and his mommy's attention," said Hawkins.


Raising Special-Needs and Typical Children Together

How do you involve typical children with their special-needs sibling?
"Get them involved in the process so they feel part of helping that child," said Christine Kinney, Mom Coach from Fresh Strategies.

How are things different between siblings when one has special needs?
"There can be some anger and resentment toward the special-needs sibling at times because of the amount of time spent on therapies and other activities. Sometimes the family can't do things because of the special-needs sibling's limitations. The relationship between siblings can be very one-sided with the typical sibling putting a lot of effort and energy into it. Sometimes they will get a response and sometimes not," said Ginny Bryan, mother of three boys, one with mild autism.

How do you make time for typical kids?
"We keep reminding our typical kids that Tommy (our special-needs child) truly needs these therapies in order to communicate better, to behave better in public and at school, and to improve his self-help skills. When there is an activity that our typical kids are interested in, we try to make a huge effort to make it work. We also plan special outings with one typical child and one parent. It is a very special time to get one-on-one attention," said Bryan.

Special Considerations for Twins and Triplets

TWINS
By Ginny Bryan, mother of three and an identical twin
We were striving for individuality. It was so hard to achieve because we were identical twins. Some people treated us as one person.

We always had each other and there was always constant companionship. As we got older it was hard for us to do things on our own. We were so used to doing things together and having each other around.

Parents should spend one-on-one time with each child. My parents would take us out to lunch by ourselves once a month. We would get to pick the place. It gave my parents a chance to get to know us individually. It was a wonderful opportunity for our relationship with each parent to grow.

I think parents should make sure they treat each child as an individual and treat them like all other siblings in the family. Make sure you let them have their own interests. Let them dress and act as themselves and let them have time to themselves.
Lastly, treat them as one. It is so important to let them grow individually.

TRIPLETS
By Mary Jeffries, mother of five (including triplets)

When you have three at the same age, the fact that they want to be the center of attention does not change greatly, but they do seem to have an awareness of each other's needs. In multiple situations, I have found that they take on roles as a natural balance. One becomes dominant, the other the "doer" and another "the pleaser".

When they were little, the rivalry was over mostly over toys but as they entered school, those rivalries became less intense.

From the very beginning, we tried to emphasize their uniqueness. We never dressed them alike. We could not treat them identical, because of their very different personalities. The trick was to make sure they felt that it was equal. To this day, we still wrestle with fairness, especially with three teenagers.

As a parent, it was like always riding a merry-go-round. You start with a compliment to one and they interrupt each other to chime in about their similar achievements; obviously to make sure they have not been missed.

As they have grown older, I have found they want to disconnect from one sibling from another to establish their own ground. This was infinitely easier for our daughter being the only girl, but the boys found it more difficult. They were always connected as a twosome and therefore excluded at times because of it. This is when things got tense and they needed separation.


Tips for bringing children into blended families
New parents should spend one-on-one time with a new stepchild to get to know him or her. Respect their boundaries. Let them know you are always available to talk. Be mindful of each family's holidays and birthday traditions. Listen to what the child is saying and try to respond in a way that acknowledges the child's feelings. Give unconditional, constant reassurance and love to each child.
Maintain a special relationship with your biological child while still talking about how good it is to become a family together.

SOURCES: Angela Oswalt, LSW, Nationwide Children's Hospital, and Judy Wood, program coordinator, Art of Positive Parenting, Action for Children


Pattie Stechschulte is a freelance magazine writer living in Westerville with her husband, Steve, and two sons, Will and Jack.