In natural development, all young animals play, wrestle, and fight. Lion cubs, young bulls in the paddock and fledglings in a nest, they all fight and are rivals for food, attention, and position.
So let’s put sibling rivalry in context. To some extent it is a part of normal development. Children engaging in sibling rivalry battles are experimenting, testing boundaries, finding out about themselves, and developing assertiveness. However, sibling rivalry can go too far, when one or other child is hurt or abused – physically, emotionally or verbally. At this stage, it is no longer sibling rivalry, but taunting, bullying or abuse.
Sibling rivalry is likely the most common developmental problem that affects almost all families, yet it is somewhat normal. In part, sibling rivalry is just children competing for parental attention or trying to establish position. Similarly, boys often wrestle and fight, a behaviour, which can concern mums who came from all girl families. While some sibling rivalry is a part of normal development, not effectively managing sibling rivalry can lead to family dysfunction.
Differences in age and development
Sometimes sibling rivalry is driven by normal developmental stages. A younger sibling will reach a developmental level of being more aware of the world around them, and wanting to influence. At this stage, they may reject an older sibling’s support, help or even authoritative role, as they want to act independently. The older sibling will naturally react, as they dislike the developmental change in the relationship, and the loss of their superior role.
Similarly, children often compete and wrestle, but age and developmental differences make battles unfair or non-equal. Sibling rivalry can naturally occur at this time. A younger girl may well bite, simply because it is her only weapon to gain equality when her older brother physically or verbally overpowers her. Similarly, a younger brother, with less well developed verbal and language skills, may battle to push his older sister out of the way, as it is his best means of getting attention or getting his point across, when his words don’t work. Thus, it is very easy to fall into a ‘parent trap’, assuming that sibling rivalry is not normal, rather that there must be a deep-seated cause for such behaviour.
The most common form of sibling rivalry begins with jealousy or feelings of being misplaced when a new baby arrives home. It is natural development for a toddler, who still developmentally sees himself as the centre of the world, to show sibling rivalry toward the baby who has taken his place.
Later, the most common forms of sibling rivalry typically develop into battles for attention, position, and recognition in the family. Thus, we often see sibling rivalry battles involving fighting for mum’s attention, arguing over ‘turns’ with dad, fighting over the television or the computer, needing to be first to the front seat of the car, arguing over the biggest serve, or complaining that mum or dad favours the other child.
The golden rule
The golden rule of sibling rivalry is never to take sides and to avoid refereeing. Unless, as a parent you have seen every element of the battle, it is best not to apportion blame, to take sides, or to referee.
A far more effective strategy is to slow down, talk calmly but firmly, keep ‘cool’, and most importantly, deal with siblings equally, determining that each sibling’s behaviour is equally inappropriate or equally unacceptable. This logically determines that each sibling should then be dealt with equally. For example, they both should have to leave the TV room that they are fighting over, or should be separated to different places, away from the TV room.
Be confident, firm and consistent. By setting good limits, explaining boundaries for sibling battles, and sticking to limits consistently, less sibling battles are likely to occur. Consistency leads to success in all parenting.
Further, it is important not to always expect the older child in sibling rivalry battles, to be mature and not fight. Typically this gives the younger sibling far too much potential and power to set up battles, before playing victim, and thus, reaping mum’s attention, while the older child is unfairly disciplined.
As with most problems, prevention is better than cure. Parents can consider potential problem spots and develop firm, consistent rules, which reduce the opportunity for battles. For example, a good, visible ‘family chores chart’ will help reduce battles as to whose turn it is to rinse, or pack the dishwasher. Similarly, reducing fights for the front seat of the car can be accomplished by having a rule, such as, on the way to any destination one child always sits in the front, and on the return trip the other child sits in the front seat.
Finding their own solutions
Developmentally, older children should be reaching a stage where they can problem solve, think more independently, and find solutions themselves. Thus, if prevention isn’t successful, especially with older children, it is best not to referee and take adult control.
Rather, sibling battles provide a good opportunity to teach children conflict resolution and skills in ‘working it out’. This is a better strategy than developing adult solutions or simply punishing. Parents and carers can provide hints or guidance as to ways to work out the conflict.
Children often are very aggravated in the sibling battle, so they need time to calm and chill out. Rather than looking for an immediate solution, parents and carers can give children a few moments to stop, think and suggest a solution or way that they can work out a compromise. This should provide a better outcome for children, rather than immediately separating and punishing. If children cannot follow parents’ hints or suggestions toward finding a resolution, they should be separated, lose a privilege or face time out.
Lastly, but most importantly, more is achieved through positive encouragement and recognition, rather than negative discipline. Parents and carers can give children lots of praise, recognition and regard whenever they cooperate, share and play cooperatively together. Further, parents can reward children for sharing, being nice, and not battling. After sibling rivalry battles, more effort should be directed to positive encouragement and genuine praise, rather than discipline.
Inevitably, if sibling battles still occur, parents and carers can follow these strategies:
- Be calm, firm, confident and play it cool.
- Don’t referee or take sides.
- Don’t take responsibility for always solving the conflict.
- Don’t repeatedly blame one child, favour the younger or see a victim.
- Treat all children equally, unless one child is truly bullying without provocation.
- Listen to both children, but determine that they are both battling and behaving badly.
- Answer any claims of being unfair or favouring with a parent assertion that they are fighting, not you, thus the problem is theirs and they need to work it out.
- Give children time to chill out and calm down.
- If they can’t work things out, separate children until they can engage well again.
- As soon as the opportunity arises, give children another chance to resolve the conflict.