What should I do about sibling rivalry?

Parents are far too accepting of sibling rivalry; many excuse it: “That’s to just how kids are. All brothers and sisters fight.” Many stop trying to deal with it because they don’t know what to do. They hear the endless bickering, whining, and arguing, and just give up, only interfering when one child gets physically hurt. Yet, parents are not helpless. There are steps they can take to eliminate most of the day-to-day struggles between siblings.

The key is getting involved. Parents shouldn’t ignore their children’s rivalry. When kids sense that a parent won’t step in, they often escalate their battles. One boy, who was rarely reprimanded for the way he treated his sister, continually picked on her as a way of releasing his frustrations. Some people believe that paying attention to sibling rivalry only encourages it because kids argue in order to get attention. However, kids generally put their efforts into seeking positive, rather than negative attention.

The real root of sibling rivalry is a child’s angry belief that he isn’t being treated fairly, that his sibling is enjoying more parental affection or privileges. He directs his anger toward his sibling rather than his parents because he needs his parents for love and care. He doesn’t want to risk losing their approval. It’s much safer to attack a brother or sister.

A child will feel unfairly treated if his parents say, “Your sister is older so she gets to stay up later.” During this sensitive period from six to nine years, a child can easily feel inferior and insecure if his parents say, “You need to practice more than your brother does,” or, “I wish you could handle things as well as Jake.” The child being praised will feel entitled to gloat and may even repeat his parents’ words, “You never do anything right.” The one being put down will recent his sibling.

This presents a dilemma for parents who believe older children should have more privileges. One mother thought her nine-year-old should stay up later than her seven-year-old. This caused great conflicts. The older child teased the younger, and the younger yelled, “You think you’re so great!” and complained constantly, “Why does she get to stay up later and I don’t?” Eventually, the seven-year-old fussed so long at bedtime that he was awake as long as his sister anyway.

If an older child is treated more bigger and better than a younger sibling, the younger will fight for the privileges his sibling enjoys. He’ll feel helpless, unequal, and powerless to change what he sees as an unfair situation, and he’ll take those feelings out on his sibling.

Many parents can remember their own feelings of resentment toward a brother or sister, yet they continue to treat children as they had once hated being treated. A better alternative to granting privileges by age is to treat kids equally, and make allowances for differences in size, maturity, and physical development. While siblings four or more years apart usually go to bed at different times, those closer in age can be sent to bed at the same time. If one needs less sleep, he can read or play in his room before falling asleep. No matter how parents arrange bedtime, they should treat the issue matter-of-factly so their younger child doesn’t feel angry.

It’s not just younger children who feel unfairly treated. Older children often resent being made overly responsible for their younger siblings: “Take him outside with you when you go to play.” “Let Chris stay in your room while I make dinner.” “Walk Josie to her friend’s house.” Older children may also get more than their share of the blame. “You should know better, you’re older.” “It’s your fault. You’re supposed to be the responsible one.” An older child hearing such words feels angry while a younger child feels that his parents will come to his defense. The older child’s anger results in increased sibling rivalry.

Sibling rivalry may escalate or develop if a new baby is born. A former “only child” will face the shock of sharing his parents for the first time. A pair of siblings will find their positions in the family altered by the baby’s arrival. The middle child, in particular, may feel left out.

Parents can ease their older children’s adjustment by giving them extra attention and acknowledging their feelings: “It’s hard getting used to a new baby, isn’t it?”

Whenever you face sibling rivalry in your family, you should talk to your children, clearly stating your expectations. Let them know what the limits are and discuss ways they can control their fighting: “When you think things are unfair, tell your brother.” “Let Joanne know you’re mad without teasing her or hitting.” “If you’re mad enough to push the baby, come tell me and we’ll work it out together.” “Sometimes you have to include your sister when you play.” If you don’t set limits on rivalry, your children will believe you accept their negative behavior.

If you catch them in the middle of an argument make them sit down and discuss the situation with each other or with you. If necessary, act as a mediator and listen to each child’s side, even if that means putting up with, “You played with it longer!” “No, I had it first!” After you’ve listened, ask them to come up with a solution, offer one yourself, or direct them toward another activity.

Sometimes they will have trouble talking about their fights. They know they’re angry but they don’t know why, or they’re uncomfortable sharing their feelings. Suggest possible reasons for your child’s dissatisfaction: “Maybe you think Nicole got a better toy than you did.” “You might be mad because Corey got to watch more TV.”

Let your children know that if they persist in arguing, there will be consequences. You already know what will work best: taking away (or threatening to take away) privileges, sending your child to his room, warning about an earlier bedtime. Make sure the consequences for misbehavior are appropriate and not too harsh, or you will just stir up more resentment. Instead of thinking, “I’ll try harder to be good,” your child may be so angry at his punishment that he’ll think, “I’m really going to get my brother for this one!”

You may have success by offering your children rewards for getting along. Give the rewards often and be prepared to monitor your children closely. While you might see improved behavior, you also might see an increase in tattling or threats: “Ooh, I’m telling on you and you won’t get a treat from Mom.” You might also find that the novelty wears off and the rewards gradually become less effective.

Above all, to eliminate rivalry, treat your children fairly. There may be truth to their complaints. If you tend to reward one child and blame the other, reevaluate your attitudes. When you’re fair and generous with your praise—“Thank you for sharing with your sister.” “I’m glad you let Billy play with you.”—your children will feel better about themselves and be less likely to argue.

Of course, you can never stop all the bickering. “Shut up!” “Stupid!” and “I hate you!” are standard sibling exchanges. They’re upsetting, but they’re the quick, angry expressions of a sibling relationship. Friends rarely relate in the disagreeable terms that brothers and sisters do. If the bickering is brief, infrequent, and quickly resolved, just accept it. But whenever sibling rivalry moves beyond a few words spoken in haste, step in, set limits, and help your children resolve their differences.

Picture Credit : Google