Sibling rivalry refers to the competition, jealousy and fighting that occurs in many instances between brothers and sisters. It generally begins with the introduction of the new sibling and can carry on throughout childhood right into adulthood. Children have a strong need to grow up feeling safe and secure in their parent’s love and sometimes feel threatened when a baby arrives in their family. It is often hard for a child, especially the first-born, to accept and love their new sibling. Parents have to devote a lot of time to the needs of the new baby resulting in the first child feeling left out and competing for attention. They are also forced to share things such as toys, sweets, personal space and clothing, that they have never had to share before. As they grow older, feelings of being treated unfairly when one child receives something the other may not have – a later bedtime, a new toy – lead to jealousy and resentment. Unlike friends, siblings cannot be chosen and often personality differences can result in them simply not liking each other.
Although sibling rivalry is common it can be extremely frustrating and upsetting for parents. It is difficult to know how to deal with the fighting, as stepping in to resolve the issue often creates the impression that one child is being favoured. This exacerbates the problem and can cause resentment for one child whilst encouraging the other child to rely on its parent’s help to rescue him. It is important to try not to take sides, to remain uninvolved and to give them the opportunity to try and resolve their own differences.
Although it is best to let children sort out their own conflict, it is often difficult for them, as they don’t have the necessary emotional maturity and conflict resolution skills. If the situation is getting out of hand or either child is being emotionally or physically bullied, parents need to intervene and mediate. Working with both children and guiding them to deal with disputes in a healthy manner teaches skills that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.
When children argue, parents should not get drawn into the emotions. Children must be encouraged to calm down by finding their own safe space. This must not be seen as a punishment but rather as a cooling down period. Once they are calmer they can be helped to find a win-win solution – they can perhaps take turns with the wanted toy, find a game they can play together or share the last piece of cake. This is a perfect opportunity to teach negotiation and compromise.
In order to curtail rivalry amongst siblings, the following points should be considered:
- Show each child that they are loved unconditionally. Never, ever take sides or compare your children – each child is unique and has its own strengths
- Don’t dismiss angry, resentful feelings. Validate them and teach your children how to deal with them in a positive manner
- Structure family time when everyone has fun and no-one has to compete for attention. Also spend one-on-one time with each child to enable them to enjoy your undivided attention
- Be the best role model – children will deal with conflict in the same way they observe their parents dealing with it
- Children have a right to their own possessions – they should not be forced to share everything
- Allow children their own space for play and for friends. Encourage separate play dates
- Teach children from a young age that everything cannot be equal. Different children have different needs and should be treated as individuals
- Establish rules for acceptable behavior. Name calling, hitting or damaging property should never be tolerated
- Draw up schedules to eliminate disputes, e.g. TV programs, whose turn it is to sit in the front of the car
- Teach your children how to deal with teasing