Sibling Rivalry: Dos and Don'ts

Siblings are the first friends kids make and the closest family they’ll have when they’re older. Needless to say, for those with siblings, there is a unique and special bond they share and every parent hopes this bond only strengthens over time. Although when the kids are little it can seem like siblings share a love-hate bond. They can’t do with or without each other. 

Ask any grown-up siblings who share a close relationship about their childhood and they’ll probably tell you they fought a lot as children. It’s not uncommon for little kids to say they “hate” their sibling, “never want to play” with them again or to be in each other’s hair and annoy each other every chance they get. Sibling rivalry seems inevitable and if not addressed correctly, it can be disruptive to family bonding and leave parents exhausted. As natural as these occurrences are, there are still a few things that we as parents can do to help siblings bond better and lay the foundation for a deep meaningful relationship that will grow into a support system as they grow older. 

A mom worrying about sibling rivalry

When my second child was born, I was in awe of how beautifully my first born handled the “new baby” situation. Being just a toddler himself, he would click his tongue to soothe the baby, rock the baby’s bouncer when he cried and be my helper at the diaper station. That honeymoon lasted only for so long. Within almost a year, I couldn’t leave them in the same room for even a minute without supervision unless I was prepared to hear loud wailing or see someone hurt. Being new to the two child situation, I wondered why my older child had changed overnight and what had gotten into him all of a sudden. I was so caught up in focusing on his behaviour, I had barely noticed my own. 

Like I do when I’m caught up in any parenting dilemma that arises, I turned to a few books to help me understand siblings and how to handle rivalry that develops. I will forever be grateful for picking up Dr. Laura Markham’s book “ Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings”. It changed my perception on sibling behaviour, gave me plenty of tips on sibling bonding and most of all took away the anxiety I was feeling about my boys. 

The truth about sibling rivalry and fights is that it is a part of growing up as siblings. You can expect it to happen. And while you can’t take the entire responsibility for your child’s behaviour or the credit for their personality, we must realize that our interaction, reactions and approach to these situations can escalate their behaviour or turn them around into something more positive and natural. 

Some tips on managing Sibling Rivalry based on the book Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings

  1. Understand that their rivalry is just seeking assurance that they are loved: You probably hear your child say “ that’s unfair” “you always listen to her” “you gave him the bigger piece of cake”. More than the literal sense of their accusation, your child is actually just trying to ensure you love them as much as you love their siblings and that they are equally important as them. So instead of trying to convince them that they are being irrational or their accusations baseless, shower them with attention and love and of course empathy. 
  1. Empathize: Empathy plays a monumental role in building trust and protecting our relationship with our children. Correcting children, teaching them right from wrong, setting limits and boundaries are just some of the tasks we are expected to do. Seems like parents have all the difficult jobs to do. But when you do these things with a big dash of empathy, it makes everything more peaceful. Children want to be heard more than anything. When they’re feeling jealous, left out and are competing for your attention, dismissing their feelings as irrational and baseless makes them feel worse. Instead, empathizing with them can make them feel understood and more inclined to cooperate.
  1. Fill their cup, individually: As much as you’ll invariably do a lot of things as a family, make the effort to spend time exclusively with each of your children, whenever possible. Make it a part of your routine. It could be reading a book with each of them, a little walk at bedtime or any activity each child enjoys. Sibling rivalry stems out of insecurity from your child and plenty of love can help put those worries at rest. Give them plenty of hugs, kisses, compliments, “catch them” doing something good and appreciate their qualities. This way they’ll know they are loved beyond measure. 
  1. Preventive maintenance: Taking the time to connect and bond with each child individually on a regular basis is what Dr. Markham refers to as preventive maintenance. Exclusively bonding with each child helps you connect with them, keeping their love cup filled and secure. When each child feels treasured and loved, they are less likely to harbour any jealousy or resentment. A little bit of roughhousing can help them relieve stress, anxiety and pent-up energy too.
  1. Coach, don’t control: When siblings bicker and come complaining, often as parents we can be quick to jump in and offer solutions. This puts us at risk of taking sides which only worsens sibling rivalry. Instead, offer guidance and get your children thinking on how they can resolve their issues. Instead of insisting they share, guide them to take turns. When they break a rule, let them contemplate on how they can fix the problem. Letting them think and brainstorm will give them a better opportunity for learning.

As common as sibling rivalry is, it is important for parents to handle the situation with empathy, patience and love. It may not always be easy but it will always be helpful. My children are now aged 3 and 5. With an ongoing pandemic, they’ve spent the past 18 months around each other almost 24/7. Do they play with each other? Yes. Do they fight? Yes. Do I stress about it? Not as much. Do they love each other? No doubt about it. I’m quite confident they’re building a lasting and meaningful relationship for life. And whenever I see little spurts of jealousy or lots of bickering in the air, I know I just need to give them more love, more cuddles and more giggles and things only get better from there. It doesn't always come naturally, but I’m surely learning a little everyday.  

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