Managing Sibling Rivalry
Updated: Dec 10, 2019
For anyone who has more than 1 child, chances are you have heard the term “sibling rivalry” and the phrase brings a whole host of negative emotions, fears, and agitations.
Sibling rivalry can even begin before the sibling is born. I remember my then nursing 1-year-old angrily slapping my chest because his precious “milkies” had changed when I was pregnant with his little brother. He actually knew my body was changing before I did!
As they’ve grown they’ve gone through various stages of sibling rivalry and I’m sure there are many more to come. Here are 11 things I’ve learned about sibling rivalry.
1) Humans fight over resources. Tiny humans have a very short list of resources and the top of the list is - you! Mom is the resource to trump all resources. Mom means food, water, comfort, safety, and shelter. So when kids are particularly persnickety I first look to see how secure they are feeling in their connection with Mom. Dad is a close 2nd and may be top of the list if he is staying home with the children more, or if a kiddo is simply more bonded to Dad. Sometimes with 2 kids they will temporary each claim a parent. This can work ok for a while but you’ll want to strive to strengthen the opposite relationship too. When I had that little brother, my 19-month-old was angry and he clung to Dad while the baby was of course attached to my breast non-stop. This served us well for a time and we’ve now worked to spend time with the other child to make sure that division doesn’t become a problem. At 3 and 5 they seem pretty evenly bonded between us with a slight edge to Mom because I stay home most. This usually looks like them wanting me in the middle of the night instead of daddy, and I’m cool with that.
2) Kids model their environment. If they hear a lot of yelling they will do a lot of yelling. If they experience people hitting when they are mad, they will hit when they are mad. In addition, kids are sponges and soak up our anxieties and negative energy. It feels awful and then it spews out of them onto their nearby fellow home occupant. Of course, kids can yell and hit even if they don’t experience these things, but that is because their brains are wildly immature and they can’t control their impulses yet. To grow them into humans who do control those impulses we have to show them what that looks like. They don’t really know how to handle relationships yet, how to notice and accept differences, how to negotiate and discuss feelings. We get to teach them by how we interact with them, our partners, our families, and our friends. And we’re bound to mess up, and so are they, so then we model our apology and reconnection skills.
3) Kids lack self-regulation. Their brains are not fully formed until they are 25-years-old! I won’t bore you with all the science but this means it is impossible for them to be great diplomatic problem solvers - yet. We can give them tools for managing their feelings and expressing them more appropriately and then we can role play when things are calm so they can use those tools later with their siblings.
4) Humans need to feel important. Siblings sometimes feel a lack of significance and they take that out on each other. Being very specific with what you notice each child doing that is helpful or kind helps them feel special to you. “I really appreciated you getting your baby sister her blanket, she was cold and you helped her feel warm. That was sweet. Thank you.”
5) Relationships need 1:1 time - marriages need date night and so do kids. When a kiddo is acting out of character, I make sure they are getting enough 1:1 time with each parent where they can make eye contact and talk and be heard. This helps them feel secure in their relationships. Connection heals.
6) I also do family outings so the kids can build fun bonded memories. Sharing adventures helps kids to enjoy time together. Playing is an essential part of childhood - rough-housing included! Some fear rough-housing will make sibling rivalry worse but it actually helps teach empathy! Just put boundaries in place - anyone can call quits, no punching or kicking just wrestling, keep it on soft surfaces, ideally with an adult nearby to intervene if it escalates too far.
7) We all need some down time too - it’s important to honor when a child needs some time away from their siblings, some privacy, or the ability to protect something precious to them. By honoring this for everyone in the family, it becomes common practice and knowing they have an out gives them permission to take it instead of lashing out at their siblings.
8) When the fights happen, try to stay out of it as much as you can. You can’t allow them to physically hurt each other or torment each other but you can take a pause and see how it plays out. Many times when we give them a few minutes they manage to find a solution and our staying out of it shows them we believe in their ability. If someone starts crying you can step in.
9) Even though it is tempting to assume you know who is to blame - don’t. Rivalry takes 2. It doesn’t have to be someone’s fault. When I hear my 3 year old cry I might say, “Oh, Revan you sound upset. What happened?” I hear him and then I say to my 5-year-old, “What happened bud?” Then I summarize. “Oh, so you wanted this red car and Xavier had it, so you tried to take it and Xavier grabbed it back?” They confirm this version of events. Then we move to problem-solving, “So you both want it. What can we do about that?” Sometimes one will hand it over, sometimes one will suggest an alternate toy, sometimes they’ll suggest setting a timer for a switch, sometimes one will promise to pass it along when they are done. But the reason we are able to talk in solution mode is because both kids feel heard. It's so much easier to just say “older kid, give it to younger.” or “younger kid, get something else” but in doing so we pit the kids against each other and we create room for fights later and we rob them of huge learning potential.
10) Avoid labels and fixed mindset speech. Labeling your kids as “The athletic one and the smart one,” may feel like honoring their uniquenesses but instead, it tells the athletic one they can’t be smart and the smart one they can’t be athletic. “Adam is practicing so hard this year I’ve seen huge growth in his batting skills!” “John spent an entire month researching this science subject and is now going to a competition!” You can be excited about your kids’ accomplishments and their uniquenesses without labeling them as if that’s all they are or it was just chance/luck and not something they gained because they are growing humans with varying interests and passions.
11) Instead of punishing the kids, see the rivalry as opportunities to learn new skills. When you punish a kid for fighting with their sibling they blame their sibling and are even more likely to fight again later. This also applies to the forced interactions. “You have to stay in this room until you get along.” or “You have to wear this single 3X t-shirt together until you like each other,” these strategies don’t work and cause resentment and encourage kids to lie to you to get out of the forced interaction. Helping them understand and manage their negative feelings instead will propel them to fewer struggles, and also be able to handle their struggles themselves. in the future. How many adults could still stand to learn
better conflict-resolution skills?!
Hope you find these tips to be helpful in your interactions with your little ones as they develop their strong sibling bonds! If you need a birds-eye review of your family situation, feel free to set up a free call at bit.ly/callsami and I’ll happily help you nail down specific strategies for your unique kids!