If you are a parent of more than one child, sibling rivalry is likely to be something that you are dealing with regularly.
It’s a parent’s wish to build a happy home, where their children and teens get along in harmony. But it often comes to a point where we realize it’s not all that simple. I would dare say that every parent that has more than one child, has witnessed at least some level of sibling rivalry. This rivalry, which can begin as early as the birth of the second child, might be one of the most stressful parts of parenting, and continues as the children grow and compete for toys, attention, and love. In many families, the conflict has intensified during the COVID pandemic as a result of siblings having to stay at home together, bringing to light the importance of promoting peace and positive connection between siblings. Sibling rivalry is manifested by siblings being petty, condescending, unaccepting, disrespectful to and jealous of each other, often involving verbal and physical fights. Not exactly ideal for maintaining that tranquil home environment you were dreaming about.
In some cases where there is chaos in the home, the root of the chaos may not necessarily be sibling rivalry. Sometimes one specific child is feeling uncomfortable in himself, his body, and mind and therefore lands up behaving in a way that is inappropriate or that is out of control. This child may need professional treatment. However, there are a number of excellent courses here at Bloom that can guide you in how to understand and deal with this child. If you feel your child may be struggling, you may want to take a look at our courses on Anxiety, Fear Paralysis Reflex, Impulsivity, Regulation and Sensory Processing.
Obviously there are more and less intense cases of sibling rivalry. When there is intense rivalry, where siblings are not allowing each other to be who they are, failing to accept the differences of the other, the values of the other, the victories of the other and the feelings of the other, this usually is the recipe for a rather toxic home atmosphere.
What we want is for our children to have solid respect and love for each other, showing support despite the differences. In an ideal situation, siblings know that their brother or sister has their back and will support them through thick and thin. We want our children to respect each other’s differences and recognize that we all go through different challenges and have different needs. To understand that whilst one sibling may need a quiet home, another sibling needs more playfulness and rowdiness. We want our children to learn to compromise, to ensure that everyone’s needs are taken into account.
Sounds like a pretty picture, right? Thankfully, there are healthy ways to promote harmony between siblings, and you have the opportunity to do your utmost to turn your dreams of a tranquil home, into reality.
Before we get to the tips, one more idea to keep in mind: Look at sibling rivalry as an opportunity to teach your children valuable relationship skills for life- such as compromise,, listening to another perspective, stepping into someone else’s shoes, negotiating, problem solving… With that important point in mind, let’s dive in!
1. Invest time in connection in two ways:
- Between you and each child.
- Between the children that are not getting along.
When there’s a child who is constantly bothering their siblings, they are looking for attention- they just don’t know how to seek it in a positive way, so they are seeking it in a negative way. What’s important is spending positive quality time with this child. You may find that he/she is very needy, and demands extra time and attention from you. And you might be thinking to yourself- ‘I already give this child more attention than any of the other kids!!’. Keep in mind that it’s not always about how many hours you devote to this child- it’s about how present and positive you are when it’s just you and them. Sometimes we get so caught up in investing in our children physically, buying them gifts and treats, managing their behavior, and taking them out for long and exciting outings to appease and please them. What many of us tend to overlook, is that the greatest gift we can give our children is our time. Not time when we are distracted, checking our phones every 30 seconds- REAL time, pockets of time, 1, 2, 10, 20 minutes throughout the day, when it’s just me and my child, and he or she is all that matters. It may be 4 minutes spent reading an article together, a 20 minute trip to the grocery store, or even 30 seconds sharing a quick joke together. Giving your child attention does not necessarily mean sitting down to play a game for 2 hours. The aim here is to make sure there are pockets of positive connection time throughout the day. What you’d also want to do is see how long your child can handle that positive connection time before they get restless or moody, and stop the ‘together time’ before you think that will happen. As you begin to see that your child is able to handle more positive connection time, you can increase the amount of time you spend with them in each pocket throughout the day.
If you are still finding that your child is very needy, you may want to take a look at our parenting course which specifically focuses on parenting needy children, and satiating their neediness without necessarily having to give extra time and strength.
Typically, in cases of sibling rivalry, a child will pick fights with one particular sibling. In order to establish a positive connection between those two children, it’s a good idea to do activities with those children together. It’s important that these activities are ones that both children enjoy, and that you do them for short periods of time so that the kids don’t get on each other’s nerves. If the chosen activity is a game, try to make it a quick 5 minute game, or you can get them to play the game in short segments over a few days. Start short, and increase as the kids show that they can handle more positive connection time with each other.
2. Set up the rules of arguing in the house
You can help your children to avoid intense fighting by setting up rules at an early age such as ‘we can argue and disagree but there is no physical fighting or insulting’. You may want to make it clear that if a child loses control, they may need to go to their room for a break until they are able to have a calm discussion. It’s a good idea to have the child repeat the rules in their own words so that it’s clear that they have understood them.
3. Don’t Be the Judge, nor take sides
This is an important principle when it comes to many scenarios, but is especially important in dealing with sibling rivalry. We don’t always have the full picture of what’s going on, and even if we think we do, something may have happened 2 minutes, 2 hours or 2 days ago that we weren’t aware of. The moment you take a side, the child on ‘the other side’ will feel a sense of favoritism that can fuel further conflict and jealousy.
Sometimes at the ‘crime scene’ there’s no one home to talk to, and the best thing to do at that point, is not to have a discussion, but to separate the children. If you feel that you are not in a calm state to effectively manage the fight, remove yourself from the situation until you are ready to calmly proceed. When the atmosphere is more relaxed, you can begin the next step, making sure not to become emotionally involved in the argument- a child will notice even the tiniest eye-roll. Stay calm and treat the children equally.
4. Hear both sides and validate each one's feelings.
Start by asking each sibling, one at a time, to explain what went on from his/her perspective. Validate each of the childrens’ points- this is crucial, regardless of whether you think they are right or wrong. If possible, have both of the children present so that they can learn the art of listening and validating. Who should say their part first? Take turns- it’s not like there’s only one fight a year! Be present, try to get out of your skin and into theirs- this is key to fully understanding different perspectives. In order for your child to learn to take another person’s perspective, you, as their caregiver, have to first be able to understand your child’s perspective, verbalize it, and take it into account. Take a look at my impulsivity course where I discuss this idea at length.
5. Discuss solutions /compromise.
Once the kids have listened to each others’ point of view, and you have validated their perspectives, now is the time to guide them to a compromise. Ask each of them what they want and encourage them to come up with a solution together. Say they are fighting over the iPad- give them some time to think of a way that they can both have a chance to play on the iPad, and guide them in the decision making process. Just keep in mind that it can often take a few tries until the kids come to an effective solution- it’s possible that it will work out on the first try, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself having to repeat steps 3, 4 and 5 multiple times before coming to a compromise that works. Sometimes you may get through step 3 successfully, but not 4 and 5, or you may get to a compromise, but it is not an effective one. So don’t give up, and keep trying the steps again- good things are hard to come by!
6. Try avoiding intervening directly
When you hear your children yelling at each other, your natural response as a parent might be to immediately step in. This may put an end to the fighting...for the minute. But by doing so, you have not necessarily solved the real, underlying problem. As much as possible, try to avoid direct intervention as long as the conflict is not becoming something that could lead to a visit to the hospital. If you see that the fight is likely to become unsafe, you can step in and send both of them to their rooms to cool off. In cases where the conflict is not leading to violent behavior, just remember that the children need to learn to resolve their own conflicts, instead of relying on you to make everything better. By being the one to break up the conflict, you also run the risk of causing one of the siblings to feel that you have a favorite child which could lead to even more resentment.
7. An Annoying Sibling is Normal
Teach your children that it is normal for siblings to annoy each other- that naturally, as siblings, they are bound to get on each others’ nerves, and that’s ok.
Your kids may sometimes be like Tom and Jerry- they fight, tease, irritate, and knock each other down, but at the end of the day, they still can't live without each other. A calm home may seem to you now like an unreachable dream- but through restraint, guidance and connection, you can be the key to fostering a deep and wonderful connection among your children.
To your potential!