We’ve all heard about sibling rivalry and how it is a “natural” part of growing up in a family with brothers and sisters. However, sibling rivalry does not need to occur if children can learn how to compromise, accommodate each other’s needs and resolve conflict effectively. Research has shown that sibling relationships often play a major role in young children’s understanding of other people’s emotions and perspectives, which in turn affects how they will interact in relationships with friends, romantic partners and others later on in life (Brody, 2004). As such, positive sibling relationships are important and parents can help their children get along with one another and work together as a team.
In a household with more than one child, it is inevitable that problems will arise from time to time. For example, siblings may borrow items from one another and not return them in perfect condition. They may fight over who gets to watch their favourite television show or play with the new toy. Younger children often feel resentful that older children seem to have the freedom to do whatever they want. Conversely, older children may feel jealous that the baby of the family receives more attention.
Strategies to Reduce Sibling Rivalry
As parents, it can be very frustrating and upsetting to watch your children fight with one another. A household that is full of conflict is undeniably stressful for everyone. However, you can take steps to promote peace in your household and help your kids get along.
Acknowledge Your Children’s Feelings
It is extremely important that you allow your children to feel what they feel, especially when they are angry or upset with their siblings. Parents often deny or trivialize what their children are feeling with remarks such as “You don’t really mean that”, or “Don’t be silly.” Instead, try to understand what the real issue is and view the situation from the child’s perspective.
Validate what your children feel by putting their feelings into words e.g., “It seems like you feel frustrated with your sister because she did not respect your privacy” and then helping them understand how negative feelings can be released in more constructive ways. For example, parents could encourage their children to write a letter to their sibling explaining how he or she hurt them.
It can be tempting to use comparisons to motivate your children to behave in certain ways. However, comparing your children to each other is a guaranteed way to incite sibling rivalry and build resentment. Avoid passing remarks such as “Why can’t you clear your plate after dinner like your brother?” or “If your sister can finish doing all her homework by 9pm, why can’t you?”
Focus instead, on the behaviour that displeases you. Voice your observations and describe clearly what action needs to be taken without bringing other siblings into the picture. For example: “I see that you did not clear your plate after dinner. This disappoints me as each one of us in the family has responsibilities to undertake. Please go put your plate in the sink now.”
Love Each Child For Who They Are
Parents often think that they need to treat each child the same, but keep in mind that you will always love each child differently, because they are different people with unique needs and abilities.
Children are different because of their ages, personalities, strengths and passions, so a parent’s love should cater to their development individually. Instead of worrying about treating children exactly the same, focus on helping your children understand that you give each child what they individually need.
Avoid Labelling Your Children
Parents often assign children with rigid roles that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, one child gets the label of the “problem child” and another is known as the “responsible one”. By labelling your children and treating them as such, you create certain expectations that they may unconsciously or otherwise live up to.
Avoid phrases such as “You always ______” or “You are ______ again” as doing so locks your children into those roles and creates a fixed mindset, in which they see abilities or behaviours as fixed traits. Help your children understand that they can change their behaviour and their situation. This approach is empowering as it equips them with a growth mindset of ability, which is the view that they can cultivate traits that they value and desire.
Intervene When Necessary
When your children fight, try not to step in immediately as you do not want them to become overly dependent on you to resolve their conflicts. Learn to ignore general bickering.
However, if a situation starts escalating, step in and acknowledge their anger, recount each child’s point of view, describe the problem, express confidence in the children’s ability to find their own solution and leave them to it.
If the situation appears to be physically violent or dangerous, separate the children and have them take a time-out. Encourage them to reflect and when they are ready, encourage them to ask for the other’s forgiveness, express honest emotions and show compassion.
Remind them that they should treat others the way they want to be treated. Teach your children that it is perfectly normal to not see eye to eye on things, and that they must not let arguments affect their positive interactions.
Hold Regular Family Meetings
A family meeting is a time for all family members to come together to make family decisions. Parents, children, and any others who live in the home and have a stake in decisions affecting the daily life of the family should take part. Choose a time that works for everyone and give everyone the opportunity to speak without interruption.
During this meeting, recognize that everyone’s opinion matters. The meeting allows the family to cultivate good listening skills, share their opinions, seek understanding, find resolutions to problems, share love, develop unity, and build trust and self-esteem.
Parents as Role Models
In any family, it is expected that not everyone will hold similar views. However, that is no excuse for children to behave disrespectfully or cruelly to one another. Your role as a parent is to model good behaviour by treating your children with kindness and respect, teach them conflict resolution and communication skills as well as intervening when necessary. These social skills and attitudes that your children develop within the family circle are what they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Abraham, K. & Studaker-Cordner,M.Empowering Parents. Sibling fighting: 5 ways to teach your kids to get along.
Boyse,K. R.N. (2011) Sibling rivalry. University of Michigan Health System.
Brems, L. (2013). 5 things parents can do to help their children get along. A Teacher Mom.
Brody, G. (2004). Siblings’ direct and indirect contributions to child development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 124–126.
Dweck, C. The mindset of a champion. Stanford University.
Lee, K. How to encourage good sibling relationships. About.com.