Minimising Sibling Rivalry (Part 2 of a 2-Part Article)
Sibling rivalry can be frustrating and exhausting. However, sibling conflict can help children acquire essential social, interpersonal and cognitive skills when appropriately handled. For this reason, it is important to teach siblings how to interact positively and resolve conflicts constructively. How can we, as parents, help to minimise conflict and create a more peaceful environment?
Praise. “Children often get our attention when they are fighting and hurting one another, but it is easy to ignore them when they are getting along and playing nicely,” says Dr Kimberly Updegraff, a professor of family and human development who has studied sibling relationships for more than 20 years. Acknowledging and praising behaviours that you want to see more of, like sharing and playing together, will encourage your children to continue doing so in future.
One-to-one attention. Give your children at least 10 to 15 minutes of child-centred, intentional attention daily. By separately giving each child their own special time with mummy or daddy, you help to increase feelings of emotional connection and proactively fill your child with positive attention. Ensure that you are fully present with no distractions.
Avoid labelling. Labelling our kids (whether intentionally or not) inadvertently creates comparisons between siblings. If one child is referred to as the “smart one”, their sibling may feel that they aren’t so smart.
Teach them skills.
Language to express themselves. Kids may say they hate their sibling when in reality, they are just feeling frustrated, disappointed, or anxious. Help children develop a wider vocabulary for communicating their wants and expressing their emotions:
“I feel mad when Sam doesn’t let me play with the car.”
“May I please play with…”
“I’m not quite finished playing with it, but I’ll let you know when I’m finished.”
Emotion regulation. Just like how we aren’t always ready to discuss our feelings immediately after a disagreement, children need some time to calm down before they are ready to talk too. Teach them emotion regulation strategies such as walking away, counting to 10, and taking deep breaths.
Conflict resolution. A traffic light system can help children and their siblings practice self-control and conflict resolution.
Red: Take a deep breath and calm down.
Yellow: Listen carefully to each other, think about their choices, and make a plan. Distinguish between solutions that are win-win, win-lose, and lose-lose.
Green: Pick the best solution and agree to try it.
Mediate only when necessary. When siblings are fighting or trying to hurt one another, it can be tempting to intervene, dictate a solution, and quickly shut down the argument. However, doing so prevents children from fixing problems independently and can even encourage them to depend on you for a resolution. If intervention is necessary, try the following steps:
Give everyone time to calm down.
Listen to each child’s version of what happened.
Without placing blame or taking sides, ask them to come up with some solutions together. If no one can come up with a workable solution, suggest a few yourself, and help them reach an agreement.
If your kids can’t agree on a solution, it’s time to put them “all in the same boat.” This means that everyone involved is given the same consequence. For example, you may say, “Either you can take turns with the game, or I will put it away for the rest of playtime.” Make sure to follow through.
Decades of research have shown that children can learn the skills and competencies needed to improve their relationships. But this won’t happen without proactive, intentional effort from parents. Next time, take a deep breath when sibling rivalry rears its head. Be patient with your children as they pick up these new skills; soon, sibling rivalry and fighting will be kept to a minimum. “Oh great, the kids are fighting again” doesn’t have to be a sarcastic comment anymore.
A note of caution
While sibling conflicts are common, parents should note when sibling rivalry crosses into problematic territory. Severe instances of aggression or frequent aggression* (occurring most days of the week) could be an indicator of a more serious behavioural problem. Parents concerned about their children’s aggression should seek out a clinician who will provide a thorough assessment and help them learn developmentally appropriate behavioural management techniques.
*Aggression includes physical aggression, relational aggression (e.g., not wanting to play with each other) and/or verbal aggression (e.g., name-calling or taunting).
Dirks, M. A., Recchia, H. E., Estabrook, R., Howe, N., Petitclerc, A., Burns, J. L., Briggs-Gowan, M. J., & Wakschlag, L. S. (2018). Differentiating typical from atypical perpetration of sibling-directed aggression during the preschool years. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.12939