There are many factors that affect sibling relationships, from the personality of the children to the personality of the parents. Luckily, we have your guide to sibling rivalry: what it is, why it happens and what parents can do to stop it in its tracks.
Why can’t they just get along?
While some siblings can have loving and caring relationships, there are many factors that can come into play and negatively affect those relationships.
Birth order: Oldest children can have additional responsibilities for their younger siblings which can create resentment. Younger children can be jealous of the freedoms their older siblings are allowed.
Gender: Parents may unintentionally treat the children differently based on their gender. For example, the teenage daughter has an earlier curfew, the teenage son may feel his father treats his sister more lovingly.
Age: If the children are in different places developmentally, for example, a child and a pre-teen may have trouble finding common ground.
Evolving Developmental needs can also affect sibling relationships:
- Toddler: Can be protective of their belongings and could react aggressively to a sibling touching their toys
- School-age: Has a strong sense of equality and find it difficult to understand different treatment for different siblings.
- Teenager: Trying to develop a sense of independence and may resent spending time or taking care of younger siblings.
The biggest factor in sibling rivalry is the attitude of the parent(s)
This is both good and bad news; since it is something that parents have complete control over, and yet may still struggle with. Many children implore fairness amongst all of their siblings and yet their individual personalities, needs and position in the family mean that equal is not fair and fair is not equal. A younger child may require more sleep than his/her older sibling, an older sibling may have more responsibility and a special needs child may take up more of a parent’s time.
According to Parent Expert Amy McCready, parents can fan the flame of sibling rivalry unknowingly.
“Sometimes parents will subtly play favourites by comparing one child to another. Often we label kids, and labels – positive or negative – can create competition because if you are the smart one or the athletic one, I am by default, the opposite.”
She also discouraged parents from creating competitions within the family, such as, ‘let’s see who can finish their dinner first or get into their pyjamas the fastest.’
“Those little games that we play create a winner and a loser.”
A Role Model
Not only do parents need to be mindful of the way they treat their children, they also need to consider the example they are setting in their own conflict resolution habits. Do you yell, slam doors or shut your spouse out? Your children may pick up the same habits.
When the fighting starts
- If possible, try not to get involved unless there is a risk of physical harm. When parents get involved children aren’t learning to resolve their own conflicts. It also can foster even more resentment if children see parents ‘protecting’ one child over the other.
- It is helpful to guide your children to use respectful language to resolve their conflict, especially if they are name calling or using bad language. Encourage them to explain how they are feeling.
- If you do get involved try to resolve the conflict with your kids, not for them
If you get involved…
- Wait for the emotions to settle and for the kids to be calm before rehashing the situation. If the conflict turned physical, let each child calm down in separate areas. Trying to solve conflicts right away can cause the situation to escalate.
- Turn the fight into a teachable moment.
- Don’t try to figure out who is to blame. It takes two to fight and both kids are responsible.
- Address their anger. Adults feel angry too, but they don’t react in violence.
- Is there a win-win solution? If the children are fighting over choosing a tv show, perhaps they can do an activity they enjoy together instead.
- While conflicts create stress, learning to handle conflicts is an important life skill. Children get a chance to learn how to negotiate, consider a different perspective and control their aggressive impulses.
Simple strategies for siblings
- Try to ignore the behaviour
- Ask the sibling to stop the behaviour
- Go to an adult for help
Prevent fights before they start
- Resist the urge to ask “why can’t you be more like your sister?” Set your child’s goal and expectations based on their individual needs instead of comparing your children.
- Look for opportunities to praise your children, especially when they are playing well together.
- Set clear expectations around behaviour. With older children, you can give them a sense of control by having them involved the process of setting family rules and consequences.
- You can discourage fighting by setting clear expectations around behaviour. If your children are involved in the process of setting rules and consequences they are more likely to feel control over their own actions and managing their behaviour.
- Set the limits on appropriate behaviour. Let your children know that there is no hands-on, cursing, name calling or door slamming. It is also important to not negotiate who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’ in the conflict.
- Let your children know that equal is not always fair and fair is not always equal. At times all of your children will require more or less from you.
- Look for opportunities to spend one-on-one time with your children in activities that are tailored to their interests.
- Give your kids the space they need: have a playdate without a sibling hanging along, to play alone or to do activities alone.
- Let your children know they are safe, important and loved in both words and actions.
- Let them know that your love does not have limits.
- Do family activities so your kids are able to practice spending time together in a positive setting. Parental attention and a positive setting can help ease sibling tension.
- Establish a schedule for items that are often fought over (who picks the TV channel or a favourite toy) to eliminate squabbles. If the kids can’t follow the schedule, the item is taken away.
- Family meetings are a good tool for school-age children. They are an opportunity to discuss past success in dealing with conflict and to reward good behaviour by planning fun family activities.
- Kids will often fight to get your attention. By removing yourself from the situation, you are eliminating that goal.
- If your patience is wearing thin, try and tag your spouse in to deal with the conflict to keep the resolution calm.
Signs your family needs professional help
- If the fighting is causing problems in your marriage
- If the fighting is causing self-esteem or psychological issues in your children
- If the fighting is related to another serious issue, such as depression
Melissa Robertson is a journalist with 15 years of experience as a professional writer. She is also a hot mess mom to three very energetic daughters, and loves to DIY, share design and upcycle projects and creating patterns. She shares it all on her blog, Keeping Up With The Robertsons and, luckily, has a husband who is a total softie and is usually willing to go along with her crazy plans!