Strategies for Handling Sibling Rivalry
Sibling rivalry is more or less inevitable. Child & Family Psychologist Katherine Tarr explains how you can manage this and help your kids develop a meaningful connection with each other
12 min read
Strategies for Handling Sibling Rivalry
The noise of uncontrollable laughter and squeals of excitement; the sound of children playing and having fun together is pretty hard to beat! However, there is nothing quite as harrowing to a parent’s ears as the arguing, whining, shouting, and crying that accompany sibling rivalry.
It may evoke such a strong unpleasant reaction in parents because it is so trivial, so unnecessary, or so annoying, or because it interrupts our peace and quiet, or requires some extra action from us.
Before we had children, we may have imagined our children would love each other and get along nicely and it may upset us to see our children upset, and upsetting each other. Sibling rivalry may even stir up feelings of failure within us, believing that our children fight because of something we have done wrong in our parenting.
Sibling rivalry is inevitable
Whatever feelings we experience, we can take comfort in the knowledge that sibling rivalry is very common, and is inevitable once we have more than one child.
Children seem to be able to argue over anything – whether to open the cornflakes or the rice bubbles (“We had cornflakes last time” – “But I want rice bubbles”), who this Lego piece belongs to (“It goes with my set” – “But it was in my Lego box!”). They are also very good at finding things to do that annoy their siblings (singing, humming, looking at a sister, not looking at a sister).
Rivalry between our children is not a reflection of our parenting
The behaviours our children engage in is not a reflection on us, however, our reaction to their behaviour is.
We may feel more confident in dealing with conflict between our children if we see sibling rivalry as an opportunity to teach valuable life skills, rather than a burden to be endured or misbehaviour to be punished.
When your children engage in sibling rivalry, there is an opportunity for them to learn to express their feelings and desires, develop negotiation skills, apply problem-solving skills, and practice empathy toward others. It is an opportunity to teach skills that will set them up for success in life, in their relationships with others.
Why does sibling rivalry happen?
Before exploring strategies to address the conflict between children, it can be useful to consider the reasons why children engage in sibling rivalry:
– It may be that some children enjoy the physical contact they get from fighting or feel connected when they annoy their sibling, maybe they feel powerful when they make their sibling upset.
– Some children may lack skills such as turn taking, sharing, getting what they want in an appropriate way or handling disappointment when they lose a game or things don’t go the way they hoped.
– Competition can be a factor in sibling rivalry – maybe they feel valued when you take their side in an argument, maybe they are concerned they will not get their needs met, maybe they have a strong sense of justice and they believe the situation is not fair.
– Children can begin to act out the labels or fall into the roles we give them such as ‘big sister and little brother’, “She’s my clever child and he’s my creative child,” or “He’s calm one and she’s the fiery one.” Constantly comparing a child to their sibling (e.g. “You’re a messier eater than the baby!” “If only you could be as helpful as your sister,” “I wish your brother was as tidy as you are!”) can also increase the likelihood of sibling rivalry.
Figuring out what is really going on for your child may give you a clue as to how to respond.
So, what’s a mum to do?
When thinking about any challenging behaviour it is useful to think about what can be done to:
- Reduce the chance of the problem occurring through prevention efforts – Prevent
- Ensure the child has all the skills and knowledge they need in order to use appropriate behaviour (instead of resorting to problem behaviour) – Teach
- Motivate the child to use the desirable behaviour – Reward
- How to respond when the child does engage in the challenging behaviour – Respond
Strategy 1: Prevent
Parents can reduce sibling rivalry by ensuring that each of their children knows they are loved and valued for their unique personality. When each child has a full ‘emotional tank’ they will be more tolerant and caring of their siblings. The goal here is for each parent to create a close relationship with each child. Below are some suggestions to help achieve this:
Things to avoid:
– Don’t let your children think you have a favourite, instead make each child feel appreciated and special for who they are
– Avoid comparing your children to one another, either favourably or unfavourably.
– Avoid labelling them (“He’s my naughty one” or “She’s just like her father”)
Things to Do More:
– Let each child know what you love about them. You could do this by having each family member say one thing they love about every person in your family, or by having one sheet of paper for each family member and asking everyone to write down all the things that person is good at, or you could write a sticky-note for each of the strengths each family member has and covering each other with the sticky-notes.
– Have special times with each child. This can be a big deal, like a mummy-daughter date, but children also respond well to small amounts of special time on a daily basis. Make time to play with each child in activities they are interested in, and give them your full attention for that time. Create special bedtime routines where you can read together and take a moment to hear about their day, their ideas, and their worries, or tell them stories about when you were their age.
– Create family traditions that foster bonding and happy memories (e.g. chocolate fondue to celebrate the end of the term)
Strategy 2: Teach
Do your children know what is expected of them? Clear expectations and family rules help children know how to behave and establishing routines guides children do the right thing as a matter of habit. Do your children have strategies they can use to manage their strong emotions or to solve problems? The following strategies may help:
– Use house rules and family meetings to discuss expectations. For example, hurtful behaviour is never ok: teach your children how to handle their angry feeling without hurting their sibling. “No hitting – tell your sister how angry you are with your words, not your fists” or “You sound furious! But I expect you to work it out with your brother without using putdowns”
– Managing emotions: When your child is upset they could talk about how they feel, take 10 deep breaths, go to their room to calm down, jump on the trampoline until they don’t feel angry. The goal is for them to do something that makes themselves feel better, and then return to solve the problem in a calm manner.
– Communication skills: expectations may include using a nice voice and manners, talking about how you feel and what you want, using I statements, no putdowns, listening and repeating back what the other person has said to show understanding.
– Problem-solving skills: typical steps to take include brainstorming possible solutions (at least three ideas), eliminate solutions that not everyone agrees to, add new solutions or compromises that arise from the discussion, repeat until a win-win solution is reached
– Negotiation skills:
- Trade (“I’ll play with this and you can play with that,” “If you take my rubbish out I will tidy the blocks away”)
- Take turns (“I will play on the trampoline for 5 mins then you can play on it for 5 mins,” “I’ll sit in the front seat of the car on the way there and you can sit in the front on the way home”)
- Divide the object (e.g. with sharing cake – “you can cut and I will choose,” or Lego – “I’ll have the roof pieces and you can have the wheels”)
- Paper, scissors, rock or flip a coin
- Use a timer
All of these skills and strategies will need to be taught to your children when they are in a calm and happy frame of mind. When they are angry or upset, they will need you to remain calm and to coach them to use the strategy.
Remember to praise them when they have successfully used the strategy instead of hurting others or fighting. Like learning to write their name or hit a softball, these skills and strategies will take lots of practice to learn, so don’t be discouraged if you find yourself repeating these conversations over and over.
Strategy 3: Reward
For some children, any attention, even if it is a parent telling them off, is better than no attention at all. If we only give attention when our children are fighting, they may fight with a sibling in order to get our attention. When we ‘catch our children being good’ and give them praise, affection or rewards, we are increasing the chance of them repeating that behaviour again.
This is because our positive attention makes them feel good, and because describing what they have done that we like lets them know exactly what to do to get our positive attention again. Try these strategies:
– Ignore minor problems: if you stay quiet and listen, instead of getting involved, you may find they’ll stop arguing on their own. If your children learn that are not going to get involved, they may work things out on their own.
– Give praise and positive attention when they play well together, help each other or successfully negotiate a solution to their disagreement. This encourages siblings to treat each other nicely and reinforces the bonds between them. E.g. “That was nice of you to share your chocolate with Benji.”
– Sometimes setting up a reward system can be an effective way of developing a new pattern of behaviour. Consider using sticker charts, or create a collective marble jar where children earn marbles for every period of the day where there were no outbursts. Marbles may be exchanged for rewards, such as a trip to the playground together. (N.B. this should be used for a limited time to reset patterns of behaviour, and is not meant to be a long term strategy)
Strategy 4: Respond
So by now, you have put in the groundwork of filling each child’s emotional tank. You’ve taught them the family rules and routines and how to resolve conflicts. You’ve given praise and attention when they have done those things well. But still, even if you were the perfect parent, your children would still fight from time to time!
When your children are involved in a disagreement, your role is not to determine an outcome, it is to remain calm, be neutral, and let the children work it out themselves. The following steps may be helpful:
– Ignore minor arguing. Let your children work it out themselves.
– If the situation is getting heated and you fear that someone may get hurt: separate the children if necessary have a cool off period until they are calm. E.g. “I see two angry children who are about to hurt each other. I’d like you to go to your rooms and we can work this out when everyone is feeling more calm.”
– Reflect each child’s point of view (without agreeing with either one) E.g. “Sally, you want to keep holding the puppy because she’s just settled in your arms. And Jonny, you’d like to have a turn of holding the puppy too.” or “Sara you want the iPad to finish your homework, and Billy, you want to play your game.” Once children feel understood they are more likely to stop fighting. Even better, they may begin to understand each other’s point of view.
– Describe the problem or the family rule. E.g. “Hmm, that’s a tough one – two children and only one puppy” or “In our family, homework gets top priority”
– Express confidence in your children’s ability to find their own solution. E.g. “I trust you will be able to work out a solution that you are both happy with.”
If rules have been broken or boundaries have been overstepped, then some kind of consequence might be appropriate. Get your children to make amends rather than forcing an apology. Instead of asking your children to give an insincere apology, ask them to do something to make the situation better. If they have hurt their sibling then maybe they could bring them an ice-pack. If they have broken something then maybe they could give their sibling a replacement.
Keep cool – sibling rivalry is common and normal
Remember – all siblings will do some fighting, no matter what their parents do. Your child’s behaviour is not a reflection on you – but your response to it is. The strategies here may give you a game plan for managing sibling rivalry that helps you remain calm, be firm and fair, and helps turn your children’s interactions into valuable learning opportunities for developing healthy relationships within their family and beyond.