Recently, I came across a personal reminiscence someone wrote about her relationship with her two male siblings. At a function they all attended, they were asked what the secret was of their close attachment. Her brother responded with tongue-in-cheek, yet seriously, that the secret was the bitter divorce of their parents.

Although the response was hardly what the inquirer expected, the question itself is a familiar one. I have heard that question raised by many parents, often in connection with concerns about sibling behavior.

The creation of a new family of siblings with oneself as the parent, arouses many feelings about oneís own history with oneís sibling ó both positive and negative. Parents may hold up their own sibling relationships as a model they seek to achieve, or the opposite, describing terrible feelings and behavior they would like to avoid.

Parents locked in hostile battle is certainly not the solution new parents are seeking. Yet, it may come as a surprise to recognize that often sibling behavior is more about them than about the siblings themselves. After all, sibling rivalry means rivalry between siblings for the love and/or attention of their parents. We think of siblings as children having the same parents. But in fact, every childís experience growing up is different from that of his or her sibling. Adult siblings often remember family experiences in different ways, as if not having had the same experience. And in fact, they havenít.

Feelings of rivalry can be most acute with the arrival of the first sibling. The first child, having been the king or queen of the manor, is suddenly seemingly dethroned by an interloper. It is not surprising to hear children tell parents to throw the baby out with the garbage. Parents distressed by these comments, may try to persuade a child that these are not true feelings. Yet, many mothers, are more in tune with the feeling that they are usurping the place of the firstborn with a sibling and express guilt about it. It is as though they are betraying the first child by having a second.

Our response to our childrenís sibling behavior, is influenced by our own family history, and the feelings elicited by the treatment of one child toward another. At times, it may be difficult not to feel protective of a younger child and view the older one as the aggressor, even though little ones can often be most provocative.

The difference in developmental stages of two siblings can make for challenges in management as each may interfere in the interests of the other. More challenging, is helping children deal with a major task of the early years, which is to learn to distinguish between feelings and behavior, to accept the feelings but control the unacceptable behavior.

That is why a major task for us as parents is to accept the negative feelings that children have for each other at various times. We protect our children from hurting each other physically, but that doesnít mean their feelings are wrong, or that they are somehow bad for having such feelings.

It is pointless to try to respond to childrenís desire that they be loved most, or to quantify feelings of love for each child. The truth of the matter is that a family encompasses different relationships, with different feelings at different times, and that part of the benefit of being in a family is learning how to accept that reality. Much of sibling behavior is a reflection of the difficulty in learning.

We can best help children learn when we accept that reality ourselves.

ó Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.