Jealousy and competition are common triggers.
I want my son to know and love his cousins. Growing up, I saw my cousins often, and considered them “special friends”. They lived close enough to visit frequently. Unfortunately, my extended family lives in various locations throughout the U.S. and we see them only at family events and holidays. Thanksgiving is my holiday to host, and each year I go to great lengths to give the cousins ample opportunity to connect. I wish it were that easy.
I always set two tables, one for the adults and a separate one for the kids, all of whom are close in age, and all in elementary school. My vision is that the cousins will talk and laugh easily while catching up with all that’s happened since they last saw each other.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that my vision in not the reality. The truth is the kids are unfamiliar with each other, and sit in awkward silence throughout most of the meal. They don’t spend enough time together to feel the closeness I’d love for them to feel for each other. The uncomfortable silence is not desirable, but it is bearable. After we all get up from the tables after eating, the quiet often turns into arguing, which is unpleasant.
My son is an only child who is not used to sharing his toys, space, parents or grandparents. The other cousins each have siblings, but they are tired and from the travel, and cranky because they are outside their usual environment. They also are not accustomed to having to share their parents and grandparents with other families. Much of the time the kids spend together is spent vying for attention from the adults. Often when playing games, the friendly competition for which I hoped turns unpleasantly aggressive.
Why Does Cousin Rivalry Occur?
The reasons are not all that different from why sibling fighting may occur. Each skirmish may be set off by something different – perhaps who gets to decide what TV show or movie to watch or who sits in the front seat on the ride to the store. The root cause may actually be a much bigger issue.
A clash of personalities may be the problem. In other cases, a child may feel like grandparents favor another cousin. Or perhaps children are competing for the attention of another cousin. Younger children may be resentful that the older ones do not always include them.
What to do?
Clashes between cousins may become a vicious cycle and neither child is able to back away. You might be able to minimize discord among cousins by avoiding situations that trigger rivalry.
Ways to minimize cousin rivalry.
• Equalize competition whenever possible. There’s nothing wrong with giving a younger child an extra swing at the ball, for example. And if the younger child then defeats an older child, the older child will at least know that the younger child was given an advantage.
• Emphasize the fun of the activity more than who wins. This is a great idea that usually works with younger kids. As children get older, however, they typically insist on keeping score and knowing who the winners are.
• Avoid activities in which one child has a huge advantage.
• Introduce elements of luck whenever feasible, even into sports.
• Avoid praising the winner and razzing the loser. There will be plenty of time for such good-natured teasing when the kids are more mature.
Some families simply let the cousins play and allow the chips fall where they may, saying that kids have to learn to be good losers. That is true, but when every activity ends in a meltdown. adults suffer, too,
Have a Game Plan
When avoidance techniques don’t work, you need a plan to deal with cousin conflicts. A plan begins with letting the kids know what behaviors will not be tolerated. Usually hitting and name-calling are on the no-go list. If cousins become embroiled in a quarrel but aren’t hitting or calling names, you may want to let them have a go at settling it themselves.
If you see signs the conflict is escalating rather than winding down, it may be time to step in. Listen to both sides, but don’t try to decide who started it and don’t assign blame. Just try to help them get past their disagreement. If there is no resolution in sight, try to distract them with a different activity. Finally, separating the cousins can be an effective strategy. They really do want to play with each other, in spite of their quarrels, and sometimes will quickly get over their irritation if they are facing the prospect of having to leave the group.
The Long View
I try to keep in mind that this, too, will pass. I will continue to bring the cousins together every chance I get knowing that most cases of cousin rivalry are outgrown. It’s unlikely the cousins will remember their disagreements years later, but will instead remember the fun times they shared. My hope is that my son,nieces and nephews will grow to appreciate the value of extended family and learn to love and count on each other.