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Sibling Rivalry

By: Amy Shirley (Counselling Psychologist)

Sibling rivalry has been around for as long as there have been families. The jealousy, bickering, taunting, competition, and at times physical aggression that often accompany sibling interactions can leave parents feeling exhausted and overwhelmed.

Sibling rivalry can begin immediately after a second child is born (indeed, often before the newborn even enters the world), and can continues throughout childhood.

Why do siblings fight?

At its most basic level, children feel the need to compete for their parents’ attention, love and affection. All siblings experience some level of jealousy and competition for emotional and physical resources that may result in conflict. Boredom, each child’s individual temperament (including mood, disposition and adaptability), personality characteristics, gender and age may all have an effect on the severity of the rivalry.

What factors may influence how well siblings get along?

  1. Children’s age and developmental needs

Siblings who are close in age may fight more than those who are farther apart in age. Each child’s developmental stage and the specific needs that accompany that stage of development, also play a role. Children’s various developmental needs, individual identities and anxieties have an impact on how they relate to each other.

  1. Composition of the family

Older children often feel burdened with the responsibility of having to help care for their younger siblings. A middle child may feel that they do not receive the same attention as their older or younger siblings, and may then act out on these feelings of being left out. Younger children may also often feel overshadowed by their older siblings, leading to competitive behaviours.

  1. Gender

Gender of the siblings may also play a role. Same sex siblings may feel a greater level of competition with each other, but be more similar in their interests. Children of different sexes on the other hand, may feel that their parents treat them differently. For example, a father might seem to be more gentle with his daughter than with his son. This perceived differential treatment might increase the likelihood of sibling rivalry.

  1. Divorced families

Where children come from families where parents are divorced, they may feel the need to compete for the attention of both parents separately. In the case of blended families, competition with step-siblings may be worse.

  1. Special needs

In a family where one sibling has special needs, due to physical, learning or emotional difficulties, they may require more care and attention from a parent. This in turn can be the source of much jealousy.

How Can Parents Respond?

Parents are told to let their children fight their own battles. And, in truth, jumping in prematurely can create more difficulty. If parents try to be the judge by attempting to figure out “who started it” (which is impossible) they may wind up taking sides and aggravating the already conflictual situation.

Parents are also told however, not to ignore sibling conflict. Kids need their parents’ help and guidance while they are still figuring out how to work things through with their siblings. Siblings may want to hang out together, but don’t always know how to resolve conflicts in a helpful way. And children are still learning (and sometimes testing) what parents will put up with: what is acceptable, what is not, and how far they dare go.

Here are some ways for parents to think about sibling rivalry:

  1. Pay attention to how you tend to react

There can be much uncertainty about knowing when and how to intervene in conflicts between your children. A balance must be struck between over- and under-reacting to these altercations. If a parent continually attempts to mediate every interaction, it can create more difficulties – parents may end up taking sides, trying to find out who instigated the issue, and become the ‘judge’. On the other hand, parents should not always leave siblings to resolve these conflicts on their own. Children, especially young children, are still learning how to manage and organise their feelings, and don’t yet have an internal blueprint on how to resolve conflict.

If you tend to over-react, try pause for a while, managing your own anxiety before jumping in to the altercation too quickly. Where possible, provide your children with the space to experience conflict, manage their own distress, and solve their own problems.

If you tend to under-react when stress rises, remind yourself to stay present rather than distancing yourself from the intensity when it pushes your own buttons and makes you uncomfortable.

  1. Respect the uniqueness of your children

Each child has their own unique way of being in the world, and their own specific needs. It is impossible to treat all your children in the same uniform way. Focus on meeting each child’s unique needs as they arise. This is especially important for multiples (such as twins), who are often seen as a single unit without an acknowledgement of their individuality.

  1. Avoid comparisons

Children often feel that they are being compared to their siblings, and often come out lacking. Comparing your children’s capabilities and abilities can be hurtful, and lead them to feeling insecure. When acknowledging a child’s achievement or failure, avoid phrasing it in relation to a sibling’s achievements or failures.

  1. Set ground rules

Children should have a clear idea of what is expected of them. They should be able to have an idea of what you feel is appropriate behaviour, and the consequences of inappropriate behaviour. It is important to be consistent and to follow through with consequences. Where reasonable, try to include your children in the creation of rules and consequences.

  1. Don’t be dismissive

A parent should avoid being dismissive of a child’s negative feelings, such as anger and resentment. These feelings are a normal part of being human, and it is a natural part of life that siblings will experience these feelings towards each other. It is the responsibility of the parents to assure them that mothers and fathers get angry, too, but that there are appropriate ways to express your anger. Negative feelings do not mean that you are allowed to behave in a mean or dangerous way. When these feelings do arise, sit your child down, acknowledge the angry or negative feelings, and talk it through.

  1. Look at whether you are contributing to your children’s’ rivalry

Sometimes, we as parents can unknowingly contribute to our children’s rivalry. Just as our children have their own unique characteristics and ways of being, so do we as parents. Sometimes we may align ourselves with one sibling more often, as they are simply more similar to ourselves. To see if this happens in your family, pay attention to how your children interact with each other, and closely observe your reaction to them. Also be aware of inadvertently creating alliances and aligning yourself more with one sibling than another. Children are sensitive to these dynamics, and may react negatively towards a sibling because of this differential treatment.

So parents are told to stay out and parents are told to step in. No wonder we’re confused when it comes to handling sibling struggles!

Remember however that your response to sibling rivalry can make a difference in how your children relate to each other, and create a template for how to relate to peers and other conflict situations outside the family.

References and Further Reading:

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