Helping parents and children deal with sibling rivalry

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A little squabbling between siblings — brothers and/or sisters — is, in all but the most extraordinary families, inevitable. We all have “war stories” from growing up.

And it is not necessarily a bad thing. Children who learn to deal with disagreement and jealousy within a loving family may be better able to resolve – or head off – conflict in the wider world.

While their rowdy rivalry may be driving you bonkers, they can teach your child co-operation, self-control, empathy and how to stand up for themselves.

Constant battles, however, are exhausting. So how do parents and children deal with sibling rivalry?

What causes It?

There are quite a variety of causes of sibling rivalry, but to some extent these vary with the ages of the children. Some common causes are listed below:

  • New baby: to an older sibling, the arrival of a new baby can mean sudden competition for parental affection and attention.
  • Age: assertive two-year-olds and bossy five-year-olds may be a bad mix. Or hormonal teens and nosy younger siblings. They do grow out of it.
  • Stress: disruptions at home (e.g. moving house) can turn a child’s world upside down and lead to increased fighting
  • Hunger. Or boredom. Or lack of sleep: the usual triggers behind grouchy children won’t do sibling relationships any favours.
  • Parents: children are notoriously alert to any signs of parental unfairness. They may perceive you lavish more time or attention or material goods on their sibling. You may unwittingly be more lenient or speak differently to one of your children. The way you treat your children affects the way they treat each other.

sibling rivalry

What can you do about it?

Here are some ideas — and possible solutions — to keep sibling rivalry to a minimum:

  • Talk to your child about the baby’s impending arrival and play up their own, special role as big brother or sister. Set aside time with the older sibling after the baby arrives.
  • Watch your own behaviour – do not play favourites or compare your children negatively, e.g. “Why can’t you be cheerful in the mornings, like Sally?”. Instead, celebrate their differences, e.g. “I love the way you’re always so happy at bedtime”. Be fair. And fair treatment doesn’t have to mean identical treatment – for example, older children may deserve a later bedtime. We often use the phrase “Fair does not mean the same.”
  • It’s essential to acknowledge how each child is feeling. Often, sibling rivalry can be related to a sense of frustrating or unfairness and it’s important to acknowledge this.
  • Don’t intervene too early. Keep an eye on the warring parties – for safety and fairness – but allow them to sort out minor disagreements themselves. Give them the tools to do so, e.g. “If you talk to Sally quietly, she’s more likely to listen to you”. This can be tough – especially if you have very young children who cannot defend themselves but giving children the words to explain themselves can be a useful start.
  • Do not allow physical assault or persistent harassment – this can have long-lasting effects on the sibling’s relationship.
  • Divert. This is especially useful with younger children. If they are constantly hounding each other on a rainy, stuck-inside day, give them gumboots and raincoats and send them outside. Or pull out the puzzles. Chances are, they’ll want to be involved in each other’s games. Alternatively, give them something completely different to do so that they are out of each other’s way for a while.
  • Give each child space. They are more likely to want to spend time with each other if they don’t HAVE to all the time.
  • Let your children find their own ‘role’ or ‘space’ and celebrate it. Children are all different and will have different strengths. You may find that sibling rivalry occurs over things like sports or scholastic achievements as children get older. It’s difficult to help children understand that different people have different strengths but how we respond to this can make it easier for the children. Rather than pointing out the differences or emphasising the competition, try focusing on each child’s strengths and the positive things they bring to your family.

Sibling rivalry is likely to occur right throughout your children’s lives and part of our role as parents is helping our children navigate these relationships. Managing sibling relationships can be one of the most challenging aspects of being a parent and it can be time consuming and frustrating. But our relationships with our family – especially our siblings are some of the most important in our lives and they are the way that we learn to navigate relationships with other people in our lives.

More resources to help with sibling rivalry

Genevieve Simperingham has an excellent guide to helping children deal with sibling rivalry.

Some good tips for situations such as when one child is gifted or disabled.

The Kiwi Families Team

This information was compiled by the Kiwi Families team.

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