Parenting Conversation: Sibling Rivalry

Parenting Conversation: Sibling Rivalry

4th April 2022

Do family feuds have you losing patience in your own home? Keep reading for our tips on how to deal with sibling rivalry...

We've all seen it - the famous 'hug' slash headlock squeeze from a toddler towards its newborn sibling, but is it gesture of love or aggression? Probably a mixture of both and often the first signs of sibling rivalry. For families with two or more children, the rivalry between brothers and sisters can last well into adulthood, playing out many forms of competition, jealousy, fighting, and vying for parental attention. Stress, hunger, tiredness, boredom and the inability to process emotions can lead children to lash out at siblings. New babies, disabled children or particularly gifted or more confident and attractive siblings are the most common conflict scenarios where sibling relationships can be particularly contentious.

So how can parents best navigate and nurture these important relationships?

Fortunately there are lots of things parents can do to help their kids get along better and work through conflicts in positive ways. The most important is to treat them fairly and not play favorites. Celebrate their individual talents and successes and avoid comparisons. Big up their differences; let them know how special they are in their own way. And spend quality time with each child - on their own.

From the beginning, teach your kids positive ways to get attention from each other by showing them how to approach other children to play and share toys. Teach them how to compromise, respect one another and divide things fairly. If you give them the tools, eventually they will have the confidence to work things out themselves. By setting your kids up to cooperate rather than to compete, you will encourage win-win negotiations where each side gains something.

And listen - really listen - to how your children feel about what is going on in the family. If your children know you are listening to their needs and care about their concerns, they may be less demanding and fractious with their siblings. Set aside some alone time with your child on a regular basis. It is amazing how much even 10 minutes of uninterrupted one-on-one time can mean to your child. It is also a good time to ask them about the positive things about their brother or sister, and equally what bothers them too. This is a great way to keep tabs on your family dynamic.

Don't dismiss feelings! Contrary to what many people think, anger is an entirely normal part of being human, as is the impulse to lash out. But children need the adults in their lives to assure them that mothers and fathers get angry too, and that they have learned with self-control that angry feelings do not give license to behave in cruel and dangerous ways. This is the time to sit down, acknowledge the anger (e.g., "I know you hate David right now, but you cannot hit him with a stick."), and talk it through.

When conflicts arise, parents have to judge when it is time to step in and mediate. With smaller children you may need to intervene and help structure the problem solving. But as they get older, where possible, let them learn to work out problems on their own, otherwise they will rely on you to always come to the rescue rather than trust themselves.

  • Give them the chance to express their feelings about each other, and don't try and talk them out of their feelings.
  • You can try and show them how to talk about their feelings without yelling, name-calling or violence.
  • Settle and calm them first, then ask questions about what happened before dispensing discipline.
  • Separate them for a while so they can move on without re-lashing out at each other.
  • With a contest of unequal’s in terms of strength and eloquence, parents should step in (no hitting below the belt, literally or figuratively). Some long-lasting grudges among grown siblings have resulted when their minority rights were not protected.

Pay attention to patterns of when conflicts arise - before naps or bedtimes, or when they are hungry? Pre-empt by planning a quiet activity at these times or giving an earlier meal or snack. Make sure that each child has enough time and space of their own. They need a chance to do their own thing, to play with their own friends without their siblings and to have their space property protected.

Quite different considerations must come into play when there is a disabled child in the family, especially if it's a child who requires a lot of extra support both in and out of the home. In this case, non-disabled siblings can be resentful of the time spent on their brother or sister; they sense the parent's preoccupation. They often feel they are receiving only "surface attention," and that the parent is not really alert to their needs. Making an effort to spend quality time with them on a regular basis is extremely important, so they feel special and valued.

With gifted children, talk openly about this reality with your children so they can begin to develop appropriate expectations for themselves. You can do this by comparing your own strengths with those of your husband/wife or other family members or friends. Mentioning your own weaknesses can be especially effective if there is something you don't do as well as your non-gifted child (For Example: "I wish I could draw as well as you.").

But the most common event of sibling rivalry is the arrival of a new sibling. Make sure that anything like potty training, new bed/bedroom, weaning or pre-school is introduced well beforehand to avoid the older child feeling displaced by the baby. Reading books about pregnancy and new siblings can help them vent feelings inspired by the books and prepare them for the change. Let them participate in the baby's care - baths, dressing, pushing the pram and get a baby doll for them to look after. Also, try a special present from the baby to them, and don't forget some special one on one time when the baby arrives.

Each child reacts differently depending on their developmental stage and character, but all in all, the bond between siblings is incredibly unique.

Tell us! How do you deal with sibling rivalry in your home?

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