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Topic: My son prefers one sister over the other!

QUESTION: My five-year-old son plays with one of his two year old twin sisters, but rejects the other. He clearly sends the message that one of the girls is more acceptable than the other. He likes the way she organizes her toys, instead of pulling things apart, like his other sister. I am worried about my rejected daughter's self-esteem. Should I make him treat them equally by giving him treats or other positive rewards, or punishment?

ANSWER: Do not coerce your son to change his feelings towards his sister through treats and punishment. Instead, create a situation that allows your son to experience more one- on- one time with his less favored sibling.

Attempting to force your son to treat his sisters the "same" will only ignore his feelings, creating a false instead of genuine connection. While being proactive in creating an atmosphere in which he has greater contact with her, is more likely to result in a positive sibling relationship.

All children are unique. Still, comparisons will be made between siblings, and twins are no exception. We want our children to like each other equally, but this can only come with a true appreciation for differences in the family.

What is the balance between stepping back and accepting your son's natural likes and dislikes, or making a concerted effort towards influencing your child's feelings towards a sibling? The answer lies in the atmosphere cultivated in the home. Rather than force people into boxes of comparison, healthy family relationships depend on an appreciation of differences. Although this facet of family life is accentuated with twins, it is the same process of acceptance all parents must face.

Give your children the message that in this family, everyone is respected and appreciated. Reflect your son's feelings, that he likes the qualities he sees in his favored sister, perhaps because they are similar to his own. It is natural to gravitate towards those who are like us, but we often learn more from those that are different from ourselves.

Teaching an appreciation of differences is always supported by familiarity. By arranging for your son to spend separate time alone with his less favored sister, putting puzzles together or creating a gingerbread house, he will not be able to default to his preferred sister. It is more likely that he will go the extra mile to connect with (and appreciate!) a sibling more different from himself. But acknowledging differences is not enough! Validating the girls' differences is key to the self-esteem of all family members. This would take some deeper thinking about the ways in which the "unpopular" sister's actions may reflect strength, rather than a weakness. For example, maybe her strength lies in creativity, instead of order. Parents can point out these attributes, confirming differences, which change the very nature of the comparison. For example, "Sonja is good at organizing and sorting things, while Christine focuses on exploring and pulling things apart to see what makes them work."

Healthy family relationships depend on processes that allow for differences to be appreciated. For further discussion of characteristics of healthy families and exercises you can do to promote connection over disconnection in your family, see my new book, "Making Healthy Families"!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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