Learning How to Handle Sibling Rivalry
Updated: Nov 15, 2021
"What causes sibling rivalry? Having more than one kid."
- Tim Allen, Comedian
If you have more than one child, the chances are that you spend a good portion of your time refereeing sibling conflict and rivalry. Of all the challenges of parenting, this one can be the most consuming and the most frustrating. When it feels like your kids will find a way to argue over everything from who gets which colour cup to who gets to switch on the washing machine, it can disrupt the family equilibrium and leave you feeling helpless and angry.
But there are ways to break the cycle. Even if the rivalry between siblings is inevitable, there are ways to minimise it, gain perspective on it, and live with it when it does happen.
At Good People we recently participated in a Sibling Rivalry webinar hosted by Ralphie Jacobs, a positive parenting expert and the author of Simply On Purpose, a wonderful online resource for parents. We found it so helpful we thought we’d share some of the key takeaways we're using to help reduce conflicts in the home and keep sibling rivalry, well, within at least a tolerable range.
Recognise the difference between “rivalry” and “conflict”
Ralphie says this is key because “conflict” is the inevitable squabbling between siblings, and “rivalry” begins when as parents we insert ourselves into the conflict - be it choosing a side (even if one child is - in our view - right in this instance) or trying to put a stop to it. Children are highly motivated by fairness, and when they feel that fairness in the home is threatened, they will act accordingly. “By inserting ourselves into our children’s conflicts - even unconsciously - we triangulate, escalate, prolong and dramatise them,” Ralpie says. Stop and take a breath before you get involved.
Know when it’s not your problem to solve
The vast majority of children’s arguing or bickering in the home is what Ralphie describes as “inconsequential - noise-producing but not intended to be harmful”. While this remains the case, the best way to deal with it is to ignore it, and go about your own business calmly (remaining close by so you can pick up the signs that the argument may be escalating). Remember that the number one reinforcer for any behaviour displayed by a child is parental attention - if you jump in at every disagreement between them, you will exacerbate the problem instead of solving it.
Let them learn through conflict
Remember that children can actually learn a lot from squabbling with a sibling. They discover how to make social behaviour decisions (for example that biting or pushing are not acceptable ways to handle frustration), they learn to compromise, to negotiate, to endure when life feels hard, and how to forgive and move on. These are all invaluable lessons that can be played out in the safety and comfort of their home, where mistakes are more easily tolerated and the end result will always be unconditional love from their family.
Set very clear boundaries
There is “inconsequential” conflict, and then there is the kind of conflict that you decided as a family is unacceptable in your home. This may include name-calling, unkindness, or physical violence. When these behaviours begin to emerge between siblings Ralphie advises it is time for you to step in, and her strategy for this is to "STOP, REDIRECT and REINFORCE".
STOP: Call the child or children directly and firmly by their name and say, “Stop. I can see you’re getting upset.”
REDIRECT: Ask questions like, “What do you think you can do when you’re feeling this way?” or “How can we resolve this problem together?”
REINFORCE: When the conflict has de-escalated, say, “Thank you so much for playing so kindly/sharing your toys/compromising on the show/giving your sister a turn. You’re a good big/little sister.”
It sounds so obvious, but if sibling rivalry is a result of vying for a sense of fairness or competing for your attention in the home, the thing you need to remember to never ever ever ever do, says Ralphie, is compare one sibling to another. This includes even in the most seemingly harmless of ways like saying, “Oh look, your brother already has his shoes on - you need to hurry up.” Ralphie suggests that to avoid this your need to focus on each individual child and describe the behaviour you’re seeing from them. Never bring the other child into the analogy, even if you’re tempted to.
“Children rival because they need to show that they’re important and interesting to you,” says Ralphie. Help them to forego this need by devoting some “special time” to each child every day, where your attention is completely undivided and focused on them. This might be as simple as reading a story with the youngest while the eldest takes a shower, or painting fingernails with the eldest while the youngest naps. The more you can work small snippets of one-on-one time into your days, the bigger difference you will see in their relationship with each other.
Rest assured that sibling rivalry is completely normal. While it can feel overwhelming and difficult to cope with, implementing some small changes as well as adjusting your expectations of your children can really help. Ralphie says, “Parents don’t give themselves enough credit for their ability to help shape a positive relationship between their children.” The power lies with you.
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