Sibling Rivalry: How to raise kids who get along

 In Managing Challenging Behaviours

Ah, sibling rivalry. Do you remember how you felt when you found out you were having another child? Did you imagine siblings playing peacefully side by side? Sharing, encouraging each other, giving each other kisses and cuddles? Being best friends?

Did you also imagine the fights about who’s looking at who, or the bickering over who got more rice bubbles in their bowl, or the hair pulling, punching, kicking, name calling and licking of food so no one else can have it? Probably not, right?!

But the reality is, siblings fight. It’s inevitable. There are lots of things that affect the level of sibling rivalry you’ll deal with. How close your children are in age. Their personalities and temperaments. Gender. Birth order. Age. Family circumstances. Parenting style. Physiological states (hunger, tiredness, illness). Major transitions like puberty or new babies being born. Their star sign. (Nah, just kidding about star sign. Unless you believe in that kind of thing, I guess!).

But also, sibling rivalry has a lot to do with you. Your personality. The way your own parents dealt with sibling rivalry. Your own relationship with your siblings. The culture and tone you set within your family. And your expectations regarding your kids relationships.

If you let go of the idea that your kids should never fight, and that you can eliminate sibling rivalry completely, you’re halfway there. Seriously. There’s nothing wrong with your children. And there’s nothing wrong with you or what you’re doing. Siblings fight. Sibling rivalry will always exist to some extent. Because we’re human.

That being said, there are some things we can do (and some things to avoid) if we want to reduce sibling rivalry and give our children the best possible start at a healthy relationship. Here are 8 ideas for you to try.

8 tips to help you reduce sibling rivalry:

1. Avoid comparisons

Comparing your children to each other is unhelpful. They are unique individuals and need to be treated as such. Sometimes comparisons sneak into our language without us realising. For example, I have one child in particular who can be quite slow getting into the car. On more than one occasion, these words have slipped out of my mouth: “Why are we always waiting on you, your brother and sister have been in the car for 10 minutes now!” Now, I would never say something like, “Why can’t you be like your sister?” But I don’t have to. That’s still the message I’m sending. And it makes him feel hurt and resentful.

Something to try:

Instead of comparing, simply describe what you see, how you feel, or what needs to happen. For example, “I see your shoes in the hallway. I’m feeling frustrated. Shoes belong in your wardrobe.”

2. Don’t treat them equally

Equal is not the same as fair. Providing your children with what they need is fair. Love, time, attention, things – these need to be provided on an ‘as needed’ basis. Sometimes one child will need more of your attention. Sometimes one child will need new shoes. And sometimes, one child will need a bigger bowl of cereal. They do not need to be equal. They are unique, and they have unique needs. And that includes their need for love.

Something to try:

Avoid telling your children that you love them “equally”. This doesn’t help them feel special. Rather, show them that you love them uniquely. For example, instead of, “I love you all the same”, try “You are my favourite ________ (insert name). There could never be another you.”

3. Avoid labels

Both good and bad labels can be harmful. They lock children into specific roles and this can cause jealousy, resentment, and pressure. All children have good and bad qualities. Good and bad days. Sometimes they make good decisions, sometimes they don’t. When we label them, for example, as the “problem child”, this is how everyone in the family will view them. You, their siblings, and themselves. He will become the problem child. And his siblings will fall into other roles to compensate. This puts pressure on your child to always be “the responsible one”, and causes them to resent the “problem child” for forcing them into this role. Sometimes “responsible” children want to cut loose too!

Something to try:

Don’t let anyone label your child, including yourself. Instead of, “Why are you always so mean to your sister?”, simply state what needs to happen. “Give your sister her doll back.”

4. Allow them to dislike each other

It is okay for siblings to disagree. It is okay for them to sometimes dislike each other. It’s important to allow them to express negative feelings about each other. Don’t try to squash this – everyone deserves and needs to have their feelings heard. Not allowing them to express anger towards each other will only lead to resentment. Of course, name calling or violence is never ok. But healthy expression of emotion is necessary, and should be encouraged.

Something to try:

Acknowledge how your child feels about their sibling. Listen to how they feel. “You wish your brother didn’t take your truck without asking”. “Being a big brother is hard sometimes”. “You sound really angry.” Help them to express their emotions appropriately, using their words.

5. Stay out of it

Sometimes. Sometimes we rush in to help our kids resolve conflict, when they probably could have solved it themselves.

Something to try:

Allow them an opportunity to work it out for themselves. If they are engaged in some low level bickering (no violence), then wait. See if they come up with a solution themselves. If you think they may need some help, ask first. Try, “It sounds like someone is unhappy in there, do you need some help to work it out, or are you ok?” They may surprise you!

6. Violence is never ok

If your children are hurting each other, this is not the time to stay out of it. Physical (and also emotional) violence is never ok and should be immediately dealt with. Leaving children to deal with physical conflict alone only causes them to feel unsafe and unsupported.

Something to try:

Separate children who are hurting each other and allow them time to cool off. Acknowledge that they are angry but be clear that hurting each other will not be tolerated. Attend to the injured party first. This sends a clear message that hurting someone else will not get your child extra attention from you.

7. Don’t force them to share

All children need a space of their own. Things of their own, that they do not need to share with others. Do not force sharing. Forced sharing is not really sharing. It is taking. If you can, set up a space for each child where they can play with their own things uninterrupted.

Something to try:

Don’t impose a time limit on a child who is playing with something. Instead, use it as an opportunity to teach patience to the other child. Have the child who wants the toy to ask their sibling for a turn when they are finished. Nine times out of ten, the child using the toy will choose to share it with their sibling of their own accord. For more information about this approach, see my blog post about sharing: You don’t need to teach your child to share

8. Don’t take sides

It is very tempting to try and discover who is in the wrong when children argue. Resist the urge to find out “who started it”. I read an article last week that stated, “You started it, when you had more than one child!” Haha. So who started it is irrelevant. Asking the question causes children to become defensive and angry as they each (understandably) try to justify their actions and place blame on each other.

Something to try:

Allow each child to tell their story without interruption. Act only as the mediator. Remind them of the rules, but also give them an opportunity to negotiate for themselves. If you think they can handle it, let them! Try, “I know you can find a solution that works for both of you.” Or, “I trust the two of you to work this out together.”

Sibling Rivalry: How to raise kids who get along

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