Ultimate Guide to Handling Sibling Rivalry
You come home one day and you find your children sitting close to each other enjoying snacks or indulged in an activity which is their mutual favorite.
You ask about their day and they tell you raving stories about how they cooperated to find the best activities to fight boredom and how they helped each other in preparing and having midday snack.
You beam with satisfaction and proud.
And even this is not the best part.
The best part is the fact that this encounter is a routine. Whenever you arrive at your home your children greet you with the same peace.
Till now you must have understood that I am talking about one of your deepest dreams.
And believe me, I am not here to sell you the idea that this dream will ever come true. Because it will not!
You will never get a routine in which your children would tell lovely stories of helping each other without fights during the day. There will be some golden days in your life where such a dream will feel like a reality. But you will know in those days also that this reality will not last long.
I am not selling false beliefs.
Now think about a reality where you arrive at your home and your kids greet you with peace at home. Later, in the day, instead of unbelievable stories of love and affection towards each other, they tell you minor differences in opinions and interests. They don’t fight, or if they do they don’t expect you to bash the other sibling. They are not hostile or resentful and are not making a huge scene over the issues they have with their siblings.
Tell me how would you feel about this situation? Is it still an unattainable dream?
Or can you make it true?
What if I tell you that you can achieve this peace where your kids
But before that, we need to understand the dynamics of sibling relations. These dynamics will tell you why they engage in rivalry so you can address the root cause.
Why Do Siblings Compete?
The reasons for sibling rivalry are quite obvious.
- They want most out of the limited resources of time and money from parents’ wallets.
- They are little human beings who want to maintain their boundaries and individualities.
- They want to test, assert, and amend their different worldviews which come from differences in their experiences, social circles, and age.
Sibling rivalry is healthy and fruitful if more of it is coming from the second and third reasons. It turns slightly negative if siblings see their brothers and sisters as a hindrance towards them achieving their fair share of parents’ attention.
You are an elder sibling of an adorable brother. Your parents love both of you equally. Due to some obligations on their time, they are unable to spend much time with you individually or as a family.
You feel deprived of parental attention.
While you are feeling this lack, you witness that one of your parents is talking to your brother, playing with him, and having fun.
Your rational brain knows that they have done the same with you in your unique bonding manner. But the feeling of lack is there. And that lack creates animosity.
You want your parents to start spending more time with you. And you don’t care how this will impact their bonding with your brother.
This feeling of jealousy compels you to start competing for your parents’ attention.
This behavior is normal and under covers and doesn’t intend toward harming your brother.
But, it is a competition and you are allowed to use good and, some, bad tactics.
Can you understand the process of jealousy? This jealousy makes the sibling rivalry a form of bullying. This is the inter-sibling dynamics that can be harmful to the family’s emotional health.
If you are seeing such behavior among your kids, you should consider intervening.
There are two different interventions you have to use at different times.
First, you have to make major changes in your family dynamics to help your children build deeper bonds within them.
Secondly, you have to communicate to them the proper way to act when an event of rivalry or friction arises. Let’s see how you can help your children in developing better sibling relations:
Establishing Healthier Family Dynamics
You need to start by establishing a healthy emotional environment for your kids. This emotional health will reduce the animosity among family members to minimal levels
You can nourish this environment by implementing various lifestyle changes at your home.
Understand without Judgment
Start by understanding the emotional position of each participant.
View the situation from the children’s viewpoint. Do you really think that any child could handle the above-mentioned situation positively?
Neither of your kids is responsible for friction they are experiencing- not even the elder sibling or the jealous sibling.
Don’t judge. They have their reasons. And these reasons are as valid as our stances on vaccination or no vaccination. They appear valid to them.
Accept their behavior as normal. Yes, it is not healthy. But it is normal.
Accept your children as they are. If one sibling appears aggressive and controlling, this behavior doesn’t define their personality.
It’s just behavior and they have other positive attributes also.
When we label our kids with their good or bad attributes, they accept this label. This label starts dictating their personality. In turn, it becomes their definition.
So, only label your kid as aggressive or mean if you want them to become aggressive and mean.
One part of accepting your kids’ short-comings is to understand that it is an event-related issue, not their nature.
Make a habit of assigning a few minutes of your day to communicate with your children individually.
Even if you can spare only 5 minutes a day for any of your children, this communication will help your children a lot in connecting with their emotions and managing them.
The topic of this talk can be anything. It can relate to their school life, their friends, their toys, dreams, or games. It doesn’t have to revolve around their emotions or their relationship with any sibling.
Let your child decide what they want to tell.
Think of this talk as rapport building exercise between you two.
Friction among children comes from a major part of the behavior they witness among their parents and primary caregivers.
Your irritability, absentmindedness, complaints aren’t going unnoticed. Your children are absorbing your every good and bad behavior.
One step in enhancing your communication is to be mindful of how you are interacting with them. Your presence will make you understand their needs. This understanding will develop mutual trust among you.
You want your kids to love each other. Then you go on and give them strong reasons to despise them and feel jealous.
Stop. Just stop comparing your one kid to the other. They are taking your every opinion personally.
If you encourage their individuality, they are more likely to accept themselves as who they are instead of trying to impersonate the character of their more loved sibling.
Instead, help them identify their strengths and uniqueness.
Feeling seen, from their parents, is their biggest goal. Work on helping them to achieve this goal.
This is the best way to make your child feel seen. You don’t need lavish parties and extravagant decorations to celebrate your child’s strengths.
You can be present in their lives and achievement and commend them for their unique behavior to get build the feeling of trust.
Learn the art of positively praising your kid. You don’t need frequent praise to make them believe you. You need targeted appreciation combined with truthful and constructive criticism to nourish this belief of trust.
For a child, the biggest celebration is getting your approval of their strengths.
Hold Family Meetings
It is a crucial step towards making your children accountable for their behaviors.
You can also rely on setting rules and giving out awards for positive behavior, but adding a flavor of togetherness and mutual cooperation will increase the impact of these tools multi-folds.
One reason behind sibling rivalry is establishing and managing identities. The feat of exploring one’s identity is commendable so is the feeling of belongingness.
There should be a mix of individualism and collectivism to sustain healthy family dynamics.
Family meetings will do just that: add collectivism to the mix to balance the increasing individualistic tendencies.
Imposed collectivism, on the other hand, can harm the psychological relations between siblings who have drifted too far apart.
You can lighten the impact by including play within the agenda of the family meeting. For example, how about scheduling an activity just at the beginning of the meeting to gain interest?
We have talked about spending time with your kids on a one to one basis.
Now talk about creating a haven at your home for all the kids, and adults, involved.
Familial bonds should be so strong that all the members can rely on each other for support in a difficult situation.
The best activity to manage disputes and enhance love among children of similar age group is to let them play together.
These games should have the least competition so there is no comparison among children.
A better alternative is to get them to work in teams to build something. You can take turns to team with your spouse or one or other the kids to get them motivated.
Make a point in praising your partner-in-game for their efforts and strengths.
Accept defeat and express that this was a matter of time and kit had nothing to do with life-long success and failure.
Take it lightly. And communicate with your kids if they are feeling a bit disgruntled at their efforts or their partners’ input.
Let them vent.
One way to manage parental stress is by muting you and shutting yourself in a cupboard. Your kids deserve a worry-less home and parents.
But muting your emotions also results in bottled emotions. You can sell yourself the belief that your children will not get a clue of these underlying emotions. But at the same time, you know it’s a belief that you have sold yourself.
Children do sense emotions even if we don’t share it with them.
And with this knowledge of your hidden emotions comes the knowledge that emotions should be suppressed and not shared with loved ones. These suppressed emotions appear in the forms of unwanted behaviors which are also misunderstood and dramatic.
Instead of muting your issues, you can share them, after filtering the information to suit your children’s needs of course. Model the right method to share your emotions.
Communicate your issues in words rather than in behavioral outbursts.
Model Healthy Conflict Resolution Skills
The surefire method to keep your children away from rivalry or any kind of conflict-induced situation is to keep them in an ideal house having no friction and only love.
Unfortunately, it is also a method to set your children up for lifelong failure.
Children learn through experience and observation.
You, arguing with your spouse or another family member, make the observation part.
They, fighting with their siblings, make the experience part.
Childhood is a universal boot camp. In this stage, they get to practice their life skills before they get a chance at practicing it in the world out of their homes.
Let them practice these skills where they are safe. Let your, purely adult, conflicts be their healthy guideline for positive thriving relations in the future.
By resolving conflicts in front of your kids, you are not prompting them to fight more with their siblings. Instead, you are teaching them how they can handle these conflicts and rivalry.
Some homes experience greater friction among its members; while others experience relatively more harmonious interactions. What is the reason behind these different levels of friction?
You can point out various factors that are at play here. But all these factors will boil down to a single attribute and that is respecting the feeling of other members.
Your kids, being children, show self-centeredness. There focus on concern is on their personal interests.
As a parent, it’s you who will guide them to practice the emotion of empathy.
Start by asking them to label their feelings. And then ask to walk in other people’s shoes through story prompts, role-playing, or simple case-based questions.
For example, you can point at a recent event of sibling rivalry and ask them how they felt about it. Then ask them to play a game in which they play the role of their sibling.
Intervention in the Moment
Okay, so we have looked at creating a safe place for your kids to allow them to maintain harmonious relations across the family. Let’s learn some tools which will help us in mitigating fights and conflicts as they arise.
What will you do when your children are fighting among themselves?
Would you say, ‘Oh! They fight all the time! I can’t help them much.’
Or maybe you would experience enough energy within you but decide to let them practice their conflict resolution skills.
Another alternative can be jumping in as soon as they raise their voices.
And then there are parents who would allow the children to resolves their conflicts until these conflicts reach a certain threshold of aggression.
Intervention is a common-sense approach towards resolving sibling conflicts. But you should also avoid micro-managing their affairs.
If you are blessed with a generally calm persona, it’s easy for you accurately judge when you should intervene and when you should not. You can do this by asking your kids if they need your help in resolving their conflicts. Of course, you always have to use your senses to validate their words.
Assuming that you have decided to intervene, you should approach the mediation by implementing all of the following tools:
You need to be understanding of your emotions to keep them from ruining your mood and interaction with kids.
Plus, you wouldn’t want to take up their energies and emotions. Instead, you need to give them your calm congruence so it can work as a medicine for their emotional state.
Remind yourself of their emotional state: They are feeling anger, frustration, and fear.
Remind yourself of your goal: You are their most accessible mentor who has to tell them how they can overcome their fears and learn to cooperate without giving up on their boundaries.
Remember, it’s just a learning exercise, nothing offensive.
One more thing, expect positive outcomes. Think of your kids as capable, healthy, and good human beings. Our emotions and expectations shape our kids’ behaviors and personalities.
Remain Emotionally Aloof
I am emphasizing because it is important to successfully teach them a lesson (in a positive manner).
Listen (Don’t Act)
Yes, in rare circumstances, you may feel obligated to act, but it is only a last resort.
As a mediator and emotional educator, your role is only to help them assess their emotions and decisions based on these emotions. You will reap long-lasting results if you refrain yourself from making them happy or giving them alternatives so they remain distracted.
All you have to do is to minimize the underlying issue to a normal (read healthy) level and let them process their choices in the safe environment provided by you.
Don’t rush to hand out punishments or awards. It will only prompt them to take matters to you every time they experience conflicts. Encourage them to use their brains. They are just as capable of understanding circumstances and deciding for themselves as you are.
Don’t Take Sides
I am keeping this point separate from taking action because of its importance.
There are two drawbacks to taking sides. First, by maintaining that your opinion is superior to them, you are telling them that they are somehow not capable of taking the whole perspective into account.
Secondly, your opinion will signal to one of the parties that you are siding with their opposing sibling. They may feel judged and, in some cases, wronged.
Most of the conflicts can be resolved with simple, non-judgmental listening from the caregivers.
Still, you may find them talking about this event in their routinely safe-talk (if you hold something like that at your home). That’s why safe-talk with kids is so important. It lets them converse about the emotions which may otherwise get bottled up.
In those extreme cases, when non-judgmental listening is not enough to solve the issue, you can opt to separate the kids and talk to them individually and confidentially. Assure them that they are free to vent and will not be reprimanded for their emotions or actions.
Let them vent out.
And use the information they provide to improve interactions at home.
Time-Out is an Opportunity to Reflect
There are only a handful of occasions where punishment becomes a necessity to address behavioral issues in children.
In most cases, children, being good humans know how they can avoid wrongdoings, negative behaviors, and acting out. Most of the time our negative expectations from them (based on what we infer from the society and their past momentary behaviors) make them conform to our expectations (even when they want to express exactly opposite behaviors).
In other cases, when it is a hard time for them, punishment will only make matters worse. And if you are used to giving time outs as a punishment, they will take it as an indication that you are unhappy and want them to suffer. This understanding will prevent them from attaining the goal we intend from a time-out, which is to reflect on their behavior and learning lesson from the consequences which arose as a result.
So, when you think of giving time out for mitigation sibling rivalry, or other behavioral issues, make sure that you tell them that it is not meant to punish them. Instead, they should take it as an opportunity to deconstruct their emotional difficulties and get to the solution that addresses these emotions.
Keep Them Accountable
Let them come up with ways to take responsibility for their behaviors. One way to do this, after the act of rivalry has occurred, is to ask them to make good for the grievance they have created. They can offer their sibling their toy in exchange for the toy they broke. Or they can apologize and hug them to let them know that they are sorry for losing their temper.
Count on them for being good, constructive, and fun to be around. Believe me, they will become what you expect them to become.
You want a happy home with zero conflicts and complete harmony.
Oh! Wake up! You really don’t want that. Let me tell you what you really want.
You want a safe place for you and your kid to play life without getting hurt emotionally and physically. And remember games, even if that is the game of life, allow some participants to win and others to lose. And the fun in the game comes in the form of uncertainty, thrill, and competition.
So, why would you like to weed out competition entirely from your family? It’s only there to compel the participants to put in their best efforts, right?
Instead of eliminating competition, think about keeping it positive and fun. You can do this by raising the collective morale of your tribe, making everybody accountable for their success, and remaining calm when time is difficult.