Helping End Sibling Rivalry

If you have more than one child, you know that maintaining peace in your household can be difficult. One minute your children are getting along and the next minute they’re at each other’s throats. Knowing when and how to intervene can make a difference in how your children relate to each other.

sibling rivalry

As parents, we’re faced with the task of helping each of our children accept and appreciate the differences in their brothers and sisters. In addition to sibling rivalry, personality, age, gender, and temperament all play a part in how siblings relate to one another. Finally, even the most loving siblings have bad days and conflicts. And kids don’t have the ability to know it’s not necessarily the other person’s fault, or the skills to work out differences. However, it is possible for your children to be friends, and your parenting can even prevent and transform sibling tensions.

What factors might affect how well siblings get along?

There are several factors that can affect how well your children get along with each other — including the size of your family, whether it’s a blended family, and each child’s position in it. A few examples are:

  • Children close in age might have more struggles than children farther apart in age.
  • Children of the same sex might share more of the same interests, however, they may also be more likely to compete against each other.
  • Middle children who might not get the same privileges or attention as the oldest or youngest child in the family may act out to feel more secure.
  • Children whose parents are divorced or remarried may feel driven to compete for the attention of their parents, especially if stepsiblings also live in the home.

As your children get older, the way they interact is likely to change. While younger children tend to fight physically, older children are more likely to have verbal arguments. Competitiveness between siblings typically peaks between ages 10 and 15. However, sometimes sibling rivalry can continue on into adulthood.

What steps can parents take to improve sibling relationships?

All siblings are bound to fight, tease, or tattle on one another at some point. Take steps to encourage healthy sibling relationships.

Respect each child’s unique needs. Many parents think they are doing their children a service by treating them all the same in the name of fairness. However, treating your children uniformly isn’t always practical. Instead, focus on meeting each child’s unique needs, especially when those qualities represent a contrast to the strengths of a sibling. Help your children recognize and appreciate the positive side to being different. For example, a highly organized child who prefers a predictable schedule could be a big help when you’re deciding what kind of chart or calendar would work best for keeping track of family activities. A creative child who loves spontaneity could help come up with ideas for last-minute family entertainment.

Avoid comparisons. Comparing your children’s abilities can make them feel hurt and insecure. Avoid discussing the differences between children in front of them. When praising one of your children, describe his or her action or accomplishment — rather than comparing it to how his or her sibling does it. “Why do you give me such a hard time about brushing your teeth? See how your sister just opens her mouth?” You may think you’re motivating your child, but what your child hears is that his sister is better and you love her more. Just set whatever limits you need to, without reference to his sibling. Even positive comparisons can backfire. When you say “I wish your brother would just sit down and do his homework with no fuss, like you do!” your daughter thinks “I’m the good kid so mom loves me best.” She’s also now invested in your continuing to see your other child as the bad kid.

Set the ground rules. Make sure your children understand what you consider acceptable and unacceptable behavior when it comes to interacting with each other, as well as the consequences of not following the rules.

Don’t get involved in battles. Encourage your children to settle their own differences. While you might need to help younger children resolve disputes, you can still refrain from taking sides. When you discipline your children, avoid doing so in front of others — which can cause shame and embarrassment. When possible, take your child aside to discuss his or her behavior. Also, avoid using nicknames for your children that might perpetuate sibling rivalry or repeatedly blaming one child for sibling disputes.

Help solve conflicts. If your children can’t resolve a disagreement by themselves or they routinely fight over the same things, help them develop a solution. For example, if you have young children who have trouble sharing, encourage them to each play with their own toys or plan activities that don’t require much cooperation — such as listening to music or playing hide and seek. If your children battle over gadgets, help them create a weekly schedule. Explain the consequences of not following the schedule.

Conflicts often begin when a child feels she’s been treated unfairly. She may find it difficult to understand why your expectations may be different for her than for her brother or sister. Let her know that you expect the same outcome of every child, but she and her sibling may have a completely different way of doing what they need to do. Define the outcome you’re looking for, and hold the kids accountable. For example: “You and your brother both need to put your toys away when you’re finished, but the way you store them doesn’t have to be the same.”

Listen to your children. Being a sibling can be frustrating. Allow your children to vent their negative feelings about each other. Respond by acknowledging their feelings. If you have siblings, share stories of your own childhood conflicts. Consider holding regular family meetings to give your children a chance to talk about and work out sibling issues. Family dinners also provide opportunities for talking and listening.

Be an example. Model the behavior you expect from your children. Your kids are watching how you handle the stress of living with those who don’t think like you or do things the same way you do. You may have chosen a spouse who is pretty opposite of you. On a day-to-day basis — no matter how much you love that person — the differences can quickly become more annoying than refreshing. This fact gives us an opportunity to model appreciation for how our differences complement one another and make our relationship stronger. For sibling relationships, foster amicable behavior in your children to help create a more harmonious atmosphere in your home.

Teach problem-solving skills. Coach children in acknowledging their feelings and wants. Then, set limits. Teach them alternate ways to problem solve. This means that rather than jumping in to reprimand your child when she bothers her sibling, coach the other child to stand up for himself. Also, if you always defend one child, the other child becomes convinced you love the sibling more, and sibling tensions get worse. Instead, coach both children to express their needs, and back them up as necessary.

Institute self-regulated turns instead of forced sharing, to foster generosity and lessen conflict. Make a family rule that when you’re playing at home, each child can use the toy she has for as long as she wants it, up to the next meal. If she wants to share it with her sibling before that, it’s her choice, but she decides when she’s through with the toy. If she puts it down, the other child needs to ask, “Are you done with your turn?” before making off with the toy. Of course, there may be instances when you may need to shorten that time frame such as other children visiting or if they share a tablet and have set times of use.

Create an atmosphere of kindness and appreciation in your house. Give your children opportunities to be kind to each other and to appreciate each other by making it a normal part of your family life. For example, keep a kindness journal in which you write down kind acts you notice between your kids. Read these examples to your children once a week so they can bask in how good they feel, both as the giver and receiver, and so they get a chance to see each other as a source of love and kindness. Every night at dinner, have each person find at least one specific thing to “appreciate” about each other person. When you see your children playing well together or working as a team, be sure to compliment them.

Help them be a team. Look for opportunities to reward teamwork between siblings. You might try to make your kids partners in avoiding fights with each other by setting up a Cooperation jar and putting a coin in it every time you observe the kids nice to each other, including playing without fighting. If they express feelings in an appropriate, respectful way, they gain coins, especially since that is so hard for kids. The kids get to decide (together) how to spend the money.

Make sure your kids each get enough personal space. Siblings have to share parents, toys, family time, and the spotlight, which is a lot to share. Sharing a room can foster closeness between siblings, but it can also be just too much sharing, especially for children who have very different temperaments. Room sharing is easier when kids have some private space, such as a high cupboard to keep special possessions away from a younger sibling, or a “tent” bed so a child can be alone when he chooses. Some children even get along better once parents paint a line down the middle of the floor, and set the furniture up to define two separate spaces.

Show your love. If your child KNOWS that you could never love anyone else more than you love him, he won’t find himself jealous of his sibling as often. So your first focus needs to be strengthening and sweetening your relationship with each child. Spend time alone with each of your children. Do special activities with each child that reflects his or her interests. Remind your children that you’re there for them and they can talk about anything with you.