Sibling Rivalry

Handling Sibling Rivalry

The term sibling refers to children who are related and living in the same family. Sibling rivalry has existed as long as families. It seems strange that whenever the word sibling comes up, the word rivalry seems sure to follow despite the fact that there are many solid sibling relationships in families (brothers and sisters who like and enjoy one another). However, it is the rivalry that gets attention.

What causes sibling rivalry? Think about it. Siblings don’t choose the family they are born into, don’t choose each other. They may be of different gender, are probably of different age and temperament, and, worst of all, they have to share the people they most want for themselves: their parents. Other factors include position in the family, gender and age.

The most important factor, however, is parental attitude. Parents have been taught that they must be impartial but this can be extremely difficult. It’s inevitable that parents will feel differently about children who have different personalities with differing needs, dispositions. and place in the family. Many parents feel that in order to be fair they must try to treat their children equally. It’s simply not possible.

Here are some do’s and don’ts that may be helpful in dampening down sibling rivalry within a family:

  1. Don’t make comparisons. (“I don’t understand it. When Johnny was her age, he could already tie his shoes.”) Each child is unique. Instead of comparison, each child in the family should be given his own goals and levels of expectation that relate only to him.
  2. Don’t dismiss or suppress your children’s resentment or angry feelings. Contrary to what many people think, anger is not something we should try to avoid at all costs. It’s an entirely normal part of being human, and it’s certainly normal for siblings to get angry with one another. They need the adults in their lives to reassure them that mothers and fathers get angry, too, but have learned control and that angry feelings do not give license to behave in dangerous ways. This is the time to sit down, acknowledge the anger (“I know you hate David right now but you cannot hit him with a stick”) and talk it through.
  3. Try to avoid situations that promote guilt in siblings. First we must teach children that feelings and actions are not synonymous. It may be normal to want to hit a sister on the head, but parents must stop a child from doing it. The guilt that follows doing something mean is a lot worse than the guilt of merely feeling mean. So parental intervention must be quick and decisive.
  4. When possible, let brothers and sisters settle their own differences. Sounds good but it can be terribly unfair in practice. Parents have to judge when it is time to step in and mediate, especially in a contest of unequals in terms of strength and eloquence.

Common Mistakes Parents Make in Managing Sibling Rivalry

  •  Taking sides such as attempting to punish the child who is at fault, usually the one seen pounding on the other child. (How long has this child put up with the taunting of the other child before taking drastic measures?)
  • Ignoring appropriate behavior. Parents often ignore their children when they are playing nicely. They only pay attention when a problem arises. Behaviors that are ignored decrease while behaviors which receive attention increase.

Simple Parenting Techniques That Work

  1. When the rivalry progresses to excessive physical or verbal violence OR when the number incidents of rivalry seem excessive, take action. Action does speak louder than words. Talk with your children about what is going on. Provide suggestions on how they can handle the situation when it occurs such as:
  •    Ignoring the teasing.
  •    Kidding back in a way that is humorous.
  •    Simply agreeing (in a kidding way) that whatever the teaser is saying is true.
  •    Telling the teaser that enough is enough.
  •    When these measures aren’t working ask the person in charge (parent, baby sitter) for help.
  1. When the above does not work, introduce a family plan to help with the situation that provides negative and positive consequences for all concerned such as:
  •  When there is any fighting or shouting, all involved will have a consequence such as a time out or writing sentences (“I will play nicely with my brother).
  • However, when we can go the whole day or afternoon or evening (whatever makes sense for your situation), then everyone will earn a privilege such as (1) you can have a snack, (2) I will read you a story, (3) we will all play a game together, (4) I will play outside with you (catch, etc) or (5) you can stay up later.
  1. Develop a system for evenly distributing coveted privileges. In other words, a system for taking turns for such things as:
  • Who gets to ride “shot gun” in the car. (It’s amazing how many teenagers and young adult siblings still make this an important issue).
  • Who gets to push the button in the elevator;
  • Who gets to chose where to go to eat lunch or dinner,
  • Who gets to chose the television show,
  • Who does the dishes or takes out the trash (rotate on a weekly or monthly basis)

Yes, siblings can create certain stresses but if they are overcome successfully, they will give your children resources that will serve them well later in life. Siblings learn how to share, how to come face to face with jealousy, and how to accept their individual strengths and weaknesses. Best of all, as they watch you handle sibling rivalry with equanimity and fairness, they will be pining knowledge that will be valuable when they, too, become parents.

Useful Books on Sibling Rivalry

  1. Siblings Without Rivalry : How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too (an excellent resource for parents)
  2. Birth Order Blues : How Parents Can Help Their Children Meet the Challenges of Birth Order (The author raises parents’ awareness of the impact of birth order upon children and suggests ways to resolve or circumvent potential problems relating to birth order issues).
  3. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk  The ultimate “parenting bible” —a timeless, beloved book on how to effectively communicate with your child from the #1 bestselling authors. Internationally acclaimed experts on communication between parents and children, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish “are doing for parenting today what Dr. Spock did for our generation.

Author: Gail Ader

Early childhood education is my passion and I have worked in this field since 1998, first as a teacher and then as an administrator. Child centered learning in a supportive and developmentally appropriate setting is the key to high quality programs. As the Executive Director at the Cooperative Learning Community my focus is on supporting my team so that they can focus on their children and families.