Parenting expert Diane Levy writes about sibling rivalry and how to control the  non-stop squabbling that’s common in so many families.

Sibling Rivalry or Sibling Mayhem?

I much prefer the term ‘sibling mayhem’ to that of ‘sibling rivalry.’ In fact I intensely dislike the term ‘sibling rivalry.’ ‘Rivalry’ implies that just because people are siblings, rivalry is compulsory. It implies rivalry for their parent’s attention and that, in turn, implies that the child may not be getting enough attention from her parents.

I strongly disagree with this. This generation tends to get loads and loads of attention – certainly more than their parents or grandparents ever got. More attention will not make them fight less.

And none of this takes into account that, according to their temperament, some children crave attention and some need much more space.

Sibling ‘mayhem’

This is a much more positive term to describe the scraps that break out between children. It hints at the sort of running around, noisy, boisterous, somewhat out-of-control things that happen when siblings behave badly. It also describes the certain amount of chaos you can expect when there is more than one child in a room.

And children fight because…….?

Well, because they can, of course! So why don’t we let them sort things out themselves? For several reasons, the first of which is we are all responsible for having a home that is a pleasant oasis rather than a war zone. Of course there will be disagreements, but it is important that home is a place where everyone feels valued and secure.

Secondly, most fights involve someone of greater power and someone of lesser power, someone being tormented and someone being the tormentor, someone who just wants to play quietly and someone who just wants to disrupt. In these situations it is an adult’s responsibility to stop the unpleasant behaviour from continuing.

Thirdly, when we wade in and try to help sort disputes between children, we may indeed sort out the immediate crisis, but we are also relaying the message to our children that it is their job to squabble and our job to sort it out. Not so – the problem must stay with the child.

In addition, sorting out disagreements is frustrating and exhausting work. We find ourselves as counsel for the prosecution, counsel for the defense, judge and jury. Each child hopes we will be the executioner – of the other sibling, of course. And not many of us set out to have a home-career in Law!

Variation on a theme

Usually we are dealing with one or more of the following situations:

  • We see bad behaviour happening in front of us
  • One child or more comes to us upset
  • Children close – or wide apart – in age gaps
  • We hear the situation heating up

Right in front of our eyes

When you see inappropriate behaviour happening in front of you, stop it. It doesn’t matter who started it. Don’t even try to find out. Your household rules will cover things like no hitting, no biting, no nasty comments, no shrieking, no shoving and no snatching.

Try to avoid questions like “how would you like it if someone smacked/pinched/bit you?” as chances are your child has very little interest in compassion right about now. It’s also not worth pointing out how much they have upset their sibling, as that may very well have been their intention.

Send the child to her room until she is ready to behave in a more cooperative way. This makes it very clear that you won’t stand for seeing another person be treated in this manner, no matter their age.

Safe in your arms

There are times when the most sensible thing to do, if things become unpleasant, is to move away. If your child has taken himself to a safe place then he has already taken appropriate action. Other than acknowledging his feelings (“you seem very angry/upset), all he needs from you is a cuddle and the opportunity to stay with you until he feels ready to settle down. Then the choice is his – either play elsewhere or return to the scene.

And he who has done wrong?

You don’t need to do anything just now, unless there are teeth marks or blood. Certainly, ask what happened, but file this away in your mind for future reference. If you notice this type of thing happening on a regular basis, you will need to be more vigilant, in order to catch the perpetrator in the act.

Close-in-age children

Developing a system that looks fair saves a lot of arguing and has the added benefit of teaching your child to develop their own system of fairness.

This is important particularly for children who are close in age because most of their disagreements tend to be about the sharing of toys or some other such thing. Nasty battles can ensue over whose turn is it to sit in the front seat, use the special plate or how long is a turn (egg or stove timers are great for making lengths of time fair).

The easiest way I know of developing a system is to put a roster in the kitchen, showing whose day (for under 5’s) it is to go first or whose week (over 5’s). Simple – but very effective.

Age gaps which are wider

Often it can be easier to persuade our older children to play on a higher surface (such as a benchtop or a dining table), than it is to stop the toddler putting things into their mouths and ruining any carefully constructed games.

Conversely, allowing an older child to take something off the happily playing baby, provided they distract the baby with another toy, is teaching the older child that it’s OK to take things, as long as the baby doesn’t get upset. It’s better to enforce that it’s fine for the baby to keep playing with the toy they have, and when they lose interest in it, then the older child can have it – but not before.

The temperature is rising….

We’ve all heard the escalating noises indicating the situation is heating up and hoped against hope that it would all just go away. This is known as the triumph of hope over experience. Sooner or later there is a crash or a scream or both.

If you don’t condone fighting in your household and if you wish to teach your children this, then I suggest you go in early and fast and break it up.

“Morning tea’s ready” is a surefire winner and an amazing solution to a number of potential problems. Requesting assistance with a household chore that needs actioning immediately works nearly as well but somehow isn’t quite as popular with the children.

Or, you can use my famous, no-blame phrase, ‘This isn’t working.’ Split the children up and send them to separate rooms for about 10 minutes.

Using this approach consistently means that each time they fight, your children will learn one of two things:

  • They will learn not to fight or
  • They will learn to fight very quietly.


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This information was compiled by the Kiwi Families team.

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