October 30, 2014

How to Handle Sibling Rivalry

To a certain extent, sibling rivalry is normal. Teasing, arguments, and sabotage are pretty common even among good friends and it’s reasonable to see these behaviors in kids who share the same household. 

But sibling rivalry can come to dominate family life and even descend into bullying. What can you do to smooth things over among your children and reduce the level of animosity?

The root cause of sibling rivalry is competition. This is obvious, since the word “rivalry” suggests a pitting of one side against another. Competition is learned. The way to reduce sibling rivalry is to reduce the level of competition in your home. Here’s how.

Share your attention fairly. Parental attention is a zero-sum game: attention given to one child necessarily means less attention to another child. Children actively jostle for your attention, even resorting to bad behavior so you have to focus on them, and actively undermine attention you give to a brother or sister. So notice if you tend to attend more to one child than another, if you let one child “get more” than a sibling, and if children may reasonably believe you have a favorite child (and it’s not them).

Naturally, the baby needs attention and a preschool child (or even older child) may resent all the time the baby takes. The same can be said for a child with special needs and her typically-developing siblings. Sometimes it’s just impossible to be fair in how you share attention. But at least be aware of the impact this difference has on the other children in the family. Be sympathetic and supportive. Give children fewer reasons to think you don’t love them.

Don’t pit one child against another. Making comparisons between your children, so that one feels lower in status than another or one feels higher, is obviously a trigger for sibling rivalry. Competition isn’t a very good motivator, especially when the stakes are high – and there’s nothing higher than earning a parent’s favor. Avoid comparing one child to another or suggesting that one child is faster, stronger, smarter, better looking, more responsible, or anything else than his sibling is. Instead make statements that are not comparisons: “You’re really strong” is better than “You are so much stronger than your brother is.”

Children will be competitive without you injecting competition into everything. Little kids want to be just like their older siblings, and older siblings work hard to stay ahead of the younger kids. Don’t add to the competition by setting things up yourself.

Draw the line about being mean. There is a good bit of evidence that bullying happens at home as often as it happens at school. Your children shouldn’t feel intimidated by a sibling or unsafe in their own home. Remember that bullying isn’t just physical but includes also verbal abuse and sabotage. Set clear standards for courteous behavior and make certain all your children adhere to them.

This is where favoritism creeps back in. Children believe their siblings get away with behavior they themselves are punished for. They say their parents ignore them when they complain about a sibling who is abusive. Open your eyes. If children say they are uncomfortable, they are. Deal with it.

What can you do if sibling rivalry is already a habit among your children? Besides changing your own behavior, as outlined above, what can you do to put a stop to the nastiness? 
  1. Identify one problem to focus on. Don’t single out any one child as the instigator: remember that almost always both parties contribute to the trouble in one way or another. Then notice your own default patterns of reaction and how you might be supporting or contributing to the problem. Settle on one frequently-occurring situation to fix.
  2. Decide on a way to change the pattern. Depending on the situation and whether this is fueled by temperamental issues, developmental stuff, or just bad habits, settle on your plan of approach. This might involve changing how things happen or it might include having a talk with the kids and settling on a new way of interacting. It might mean that you arrange things so the situation doesn’t occur. It probably means you will change how you yourself react. Whatever you decide to do will signal to your kids that a change is underway.
  3. Avoid setting yourself up as the referee or judge. If you sit down with your children and tell them that you will punish the next one who does X, you encourage tattling and extortion. Tattling and extortion are not what you want; you want peace and quiet. So stay positive. Work out with your children how they are to act in the problem situation in the future. Say nothing about what will happen if they don’t.
  4. Go on a positive comment campaign. Notice pleasant behavior and comment on it. Notice when children resolve the problem you discussed in a positive way, even if only one child did this and his sibling did not. Mention only the good behavior, not the bad. If you’ve been commenting only on the negative stuff, you’ve been inadvertently supporting it. Ignore bad behavior as much as you can and heap praise on the good stuff. You’ll soon see more good and less bad. 

When you replace unpleasant actions with more acceptable behavior, you guide your children in handling difficult situations and handling themselves. These are valuable lessons.

When you reduce the perception of favoritism and competition among your kids, you and they will get along better.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at www.patricianananderson.com.