How to handle sibling rivalry
Sibling rivalry is common and completely normal, but how do we stop it going too far? Dr Melanie Woodfield shares how calm consistency can be the key.
Ah, the soundtrack of family life. At times, it’s easy listening and we quietly congratulate ourselves on successfully shaping future world leaders. And then the bickering begins. “It’s mine!” “No, it’s mine!” “She got more than me, it’s not fair!” As yet another lounge-room battle escalates, parents can quickly find themselves fraught, and wishing that sorting it out was as simple as dialling down the volume.
It’s very common for siblings to squabble in healthy families. At different ages and stages it can seem relentless, yet still be within the bounds of normality. As parents, we tend to feel responsible for our children’s relationships, and worry that the constant conflict will never stop, that our children will never get along with each other. Ah, how the mind loves a worst-case scenario. On the contrary, children may actually be developing important relationship skills such as conflict resolution and problem solving as they debate with their brother as to who had the biggest ice cream, or the longest turn on the swing.
Root causes of rivalry
Sibling relationships can be tricky for a number of reasons. Some children have a particularly strong sense of justice or fairness, and have a ‘radar’ for injustice and unfairness. Sometimes an older child resists the addition of a new baby to the family or feels displaced. Sometimes if two children are close in age, one feels inferior at some level and acts out in protest. Sometimes it’s simpler – when you’re tired, hungry, jealous, frustrated or overstimulated (much of the day, when you’re a young child), the actions and words associated with these big feelings tend to be directed at the people in your immediate environment – your brother or sister.
Also, to put it bluntly, siblings really can be difficult! Imagine the younger sister who drops the Lego construction, pushes over the tower, or pulls out the carefully nurtured seedlings. As adults we (usually) have the ability to regulate our emotions (frustration, disappointment or anger), inhibit our urges, and see the behaviour in light of their developmental stage. We’re aware, for example, that young children generally aren’t aware of complicated concepts like ownership, possession, and how some things are more valuable/precious/fragile when they’ve cost a lot or taken a long time to build. When you stop and think about it, these are pretty sophisticated ideas! Through the magic of child development, kids usually acquire these more advanced abilities naturally and it’s a wonderful thing. But if you’re the older sibling, and your younger sister or brother has just bulldozed your creation, you’re likely to feel disappointed and angry, and not understand or remember this bigger picture information when emotions are raging. And if mum or dad sits you down and explains things logically (“it’s not her fault, she doesn’t understand”), it just seems like they’re defending your monster of a sister, and it feels doubly unfair!
A wee word of caution when it comes to how your child relates to their siblings: what you model for your children can really affect how they behave. Now this is not to say that your interactions have caused your children to bicker – even the most serene of parents with the most wonderful relationship with their partner still have squabbling children sometimes. But in some cases, children fight with each other in reflection of their parents’ conflict. You may hear an echo of yourself in their phrasing of accusations, or their tone with their sibling. And in other situations, children behave aggressively or inappropriately partly to draw their parents’ attention away from their conflict with the other parent. Again, the reality is that adults disagree with each other sometimes. Generally, witnessing disagreement isn’t harmful to children, especially if you’re able to resolve the conflict in front of them. Modelling how to give a calm apology, and other conflict-resolution skills, can be really powerful for your children.
Hope for harmony
There is hope! While squabbling siblings are common, and “it’s not fair!” is a cry heard throughout the world, your children can learn to get along better together. And this is despite their different personalities and preferences. Interactions between siblings are a series of behaviours, and behaviour can be modified. But it takes a little bit of work on the part of the parent. And keep in mind that you’re aiming for calmness most of the time, most days – some friction may still be present, and that’s usually completely normal. No human being (children included) is calm and considered in every moment of every day.
If you want your children to develop skills in conflict resolution and problem solving, it may not be helpful for you to take sides, play judge, and deliver a solution. One option is to state the problem as you see it: “I see two kids who both want to ride the same bike. I see one child who now owns the bike and wants to ride it, and one child who used to own the bike and still wants to ride it. I’m sure that you can come up with a solution to this problem. Come and find me when you’re ready”. Now if a five-year-old is trying to reason with a toddler, they’re probably in for some frustration due to their differing cognitive and social maturity levels, and you may need to chip in a little. Also, if kids are used to you being judge and jury, they may resist your attempts to step back. Calm consistency will emphasise that you’re no longer willing to be the ‘go to’ adjudicator.
Kids may also benefit from being taught skills in resolving conflict, though the most powerful teaching and learning happens from imitating the adults in their world. And these skills are beyond the reach of very young children (and some adults!). But older children might be up for it. Essentially, successful conflict resolution involves several key skills, which can each be taught and practised. Most importantly, these can be encouraged and praised when parents spot them happening:
❥ Staying calm. Feeling angry might be understandable (if injustice, betrayal, unfairness or disappointment happened, for example), but it’s usually easier to solve conflict successfully if they (and we) are calm. So it might be best to postpone the problem solving until the anger fades. Anger (and all feelings) are not bad, but they can make rational thinking harder in the moment.
❥ Letting the other person express themselves – their wants and needs, and their perspective.
❥ Calmly explaining what is wanted – “I feel … when you…” instead of “You always…” or “You never…”
❥ Learning the skill of being able to suggest and accept a compromise.
❥ Discerning when there’s not much point, and just walking away.
It may also be that your children need to be taught how to play together without being aggressive. One idea is to set them up with appropriate toys (pop the guns, swords and frustratingly complicated or fragile toys away for this bit) and join them for a wee while, to model how to take turns and play nicely. You could then leave, explaining you’ll be back soon, and come back after a short time (say, a minute at first). When you come back, you could comment on how well they’re playing together, possibly join in for another short period, or ask about the game. You could slowly increase the time you slip away as the days and weeks go on.
Often parents accidentally get into a ‘fire fighting’ pattern. Life is busy, and parents might leave their children completely alone when they’re playing quietly together, and only come over when the game breaks down or someone’s aggressive. It’s important to get in early with encouragement and specific praise (“I love how you let her use that counter – I know it’s your favourite”) while the going’s good. Otherwise, kids might accidentally get the message that you’ll only get involved when fighting happens, and this’ll fuel the fighting.
Tips to try
❥ Validate each child’s feelings (not necessarily their actions or words). This helps them feel understood, and confirms that their emotions make sense and are allowed. An example might be “I get that you feel angry. You put a lot of work into that, and had plans for what you were going to do with it. How disappointing”. And then pause. No need to jump to problem solving, or adding on a “but…” statement. Just pause.
❥ Praise anything you want to see more of. Science shows that if you attend to something, and praise it, it will happen more often. Be as specific as you can, so your young child knows exactly what you liked and what you want them to do again. “Great job sharing with Sam!” is clearer than “Good girl!”. Here are some things you could look for and praise:
✔ Problem solving without an adult
✔ Being kind or giving a compliment
✔ Using gentle hands
✔ Offering to help
✔ Ignoring and not responding
✔ Including others or joining in
✔ Asking nicely for a toy, and/or accepting ‘no’
✔ Waiting for a turn
✔ Using manners or being polite
❥ Ignore minor squabbling. It’s the same principle as for praise – if you attend to something (yes, even ‘negative’ attention), it will happen more often. As soon as one or both children do something even remotely helpful or prosocial, stop ignoring, and praise
❥ Try to give each child time alone with you. This doesn’t need to be exactly equal time – each child will have seasons when they need you more.
Parenting young children can be really challenging, especially when fighting between siblings feels relentless. Most of the strategies and skills described here are easier to do when your own physical and emotional ‘tank’ is topped up, so be sure to consider your own needs in the midst of the battle. Maybe you need the biggest ice cream, or the longest turn on the swing.
☙ Siblings Without Rivalry: Help your children to live together so you can live too, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. It’s an oldie, but a goodie.
☙ The Incredible Years: A trouble-shooting guide for parents of children aged 2-8 years, by Carolyn Webster-Stratton.
|Dr Melanie Woodfield is a clinical psychologist and mother of two. She works at a child and adolescent mental health service, and writes and teaches on the side.|
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 40 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW