If you have more than one kid and you think about the challenges of raising them together, sibling rivalry will definitely be at the top of your “overwhelming things” list. Your kids don’t get along. No matter how hard you try to fix things, nothing seems to work. They will spend a nice morning together but will release the dragons during the afternoon.
Like most parents who face the same situation, you feel helpless and frustrated. Most of all, you’re profoundly sad that something like this ruins the family moments that are supposed to be happy.
This is a serious challenge that we shouldn’t neglect. The more you know about sibling rivalry, the more prepared you’ll be to handle the situation. The parent has a mediating role, which is never easy.
Why does sibling rivalry occur?
Developmental psychologists come out with different theories, but they agree on one thing: the bond between siblings is highly complicated, and it’s influenced by many factors, including genetics, life events, the treatment they get from parents, generational patterns, and the socialization that occurs outside the family. All these factors shape the characters and the entire lives of siblings.
Judy Dunn, psychologist, and author of Sisters and Brothers, points out an important fact: siblings have an important role in each other’s development.
Growing up with siblings affects the personalities of children, as well as their way of thinking and expression, their intelligence, and their perception of family, friends, and themselves.
It’s a complex and highly important relationship that parents should be aware of.
Young children are profoundly affected by the way their mother interacts with their siblings. When there’s a difference in the treatment, it leads to conflict and hostility between the siblings.
So maybe it’s not because of bad luck. Maybe it’s because the parents treated the children differently in different situations, without even noticing. It’s a brutal accusation to make, but it may also open your eyes if you’re willing to do some introspection.
According to Dunn, children understand how to comfort or hurt their siblings from 18 months. They can anticipate an adult’s response to their misdeeds. By the age of three, children can evaluate themselves in comparison to their siblings. This is the time when you see the difference between a competitive and a cooperative relationship.
In addition to parental treatment, which is the most prominent reason for sibling rivalry, we should consider a few other factors:
1. The needs of your kids evolve
That’s only a natural thing to occur. Toddlers, for example, get protective of their belongings and might not like to share them with their siblings. This may even lead to aggressive behavior. A school-age kid has a strong understanding of equality, so they won’t think it’s fair to treat younger siblings differently. Teenagers usually have a responsibility to take care of younger siblings, and that may cause anger.
2. Kids see the parents as role models
If you and your partner dispute in front of your children, they will see conflict as natural behavior. Conflict is a natural occurrence in families, but if they see you arguing all the time, they will do the same. You have to be the role models for your kids and solve disagreements in the most civilized manner.
3. Kids have temper
Each kid has an individual temper, whose signs you can see from the moment they are born. Some kids are calm, whereas others are more demanding and less adaptable. The unique personality of your children plays an important role in the way they behave towards one another.
4. Lack of structure may also be the cause of rivalry
When siblings fight, it might be because they are not getting clear rules and proper guidance.
How do I know my kids see themselves as rivals?
In other words: how do you recognize sibling rivalry in your family?
These are only some of the signs that your family is facing this problem:
- Common verbal or physical attacks. Misunderstandings normally occur between siblings, but if you see them every day, we’re talking about the rivalry.
- Serious frustration, jealousy, and attention-demanding behavior.
- Tattling. If you always get “reports” from your child for their sibling’s behavior, it’s a sign of rivalry. They want you to approve their action and disapprove of the other kid’s behavior.
- Signs of regression, such as baby talk, bed-wetting, and temper tantrums occurring with the older kid. The child reverts to this behavior because they know it’s a certain way to get your attention.
- Competing for friends and boyfriends/girlfriends is a clear sign of rivalry when the kids grow up.
- Showing anger and constant arguing are the clearest signs that something is going wrong.
How to deal with sibling rivalry
So you recognized the signs. You’re sure that there’s a rivalry between your kids, and you don’t know what to do about it. Well, acknowledgment is the first step towards an effective solution. Now that you recognize the problem, you can work your way through it. As a family!
1. Whenever possible, don’t get involved
When your kids start arguing, you get nervous. You want them to stop no matter what. If the argument is not too serious, you shouldn’t intervene. That’s the hardest thing to do, but sometimes it’s important to let children solve their own problems.
If you always intervene, your kids will expect your help in all situations.
Instead of learning how to deal with conflict, they will want to be saved.
In addition, you risk making one of the kids feel inferior, since the conflict may be solved to someone’s advantage and another one’s disadvantage.
If you punish one of the kids, even if the situation was entirely their fault, the rivalry will only grow more serious.
The punished kid will get even angrier, and the rescued kid might feel like they can get away in all situations because the parent “prefers” them.
If your kids use bad language, explain how that is wrong without picking sides. Teach them to express themselves by using appropriate words. Whatever you do, try not to get involved unless there’s a danger of the argument going physical. If they are expressing themselves with words, it’s okay… even when the discussion heats up.
2. Allow them to be sad or mad
When siblings start arguing, the first parental instinct is to separate them and calm them down. That’s not the best thing to do. If you teach them how to succumb to their feelings, they will keep doing that for the rest of their lives. They think that showing anger or sadness is not socially acceptable, so they bury such feelings deep inside. Sooner or later, the hidden emotions result with frustration.
As a parent, you have to understand that these emotions are real for your children. Talk to them! Ask them how they feel. When you see that they describe their emotions in an exaggerated way, paraphrase them without trying to teach them a lesson.
If the older brother complains saying “I hate her,” paraphrase that strong expression with something milder, such as “So you don’t like how she acted.” Acknowledge that the kid is hurt and don’t hope for the negative feelings to pass if you tell them they mustn’t feel that way.
3. When things get too far, separate them
Siblings fight because they spend too much time together. When you spend the entire day playing with someone, you’ll inevitably come to a point of dispute.
You must recognize the point when the verbal argumentation is about to turn into physical aggression. That’s when you should definitely act. If you notice the kids pushing each other, separate them.
Tell them to stay in different rooms, alone. They will stay there until they are calm. Sometimes space does wonders. You’ll use that time to talk to them, so you’ll understand their feelings and you’ll try to bring them back together.
Let them read a book or play with their toys. They are not being punished; they are just instructed to spend some time away from each other.
Once the emotions calm down, they can come into the living room and you can all enjoy your time together. They will appreciate some time together after this experience.
4. Don’t pick a winner
Can you really blame one child for the rivalry and claim the other one is entirely innocent? If you do that, the negative emotions will be growing stronger. Don’t waste your energy into trying to figure out whose fault it is.
In most cases, it takes two to fight. All parties have their own responsibility. Even if that’s not the case, you should never blame one child for being bad and claiming the other one is an angel.
Try to turn this into a situation where each child gains or loses something. If they were fighting over a toy, you’ll take the toy away for a couple of days and you’ll let them play with it only if they promise they will do it together.
Parents often make this mistake: they get mad at one child for teasing the other one. They always yell at them and send them to time-out.
Such an attitude won’t put the kid under control. It will only make them assume they are inferior and not loved enough. Take this approach instead: ask the trouble-maker what happened. Let them explain the situation, and they will inevitably come down to understanding their bad behavior.
Most important of all, help your children get used to one another
Growing up with a sibling is a challenging situation. Most people would not change it for anything! It’s also a wonderful experience that results in having a best friend for a lifetime.
As a parent, your role is helping your kids understand each other. Talk to them and help them understand the issue from the other one’s perspective. Let them express their feelings, but don’t let them take the dispute too far. Most of all, treat them equally and never put the blame on one of the kids. It’s just a kid, after all. You have to understand where the aggression is coming from and help them overcome those negative feelings.