It can seem like your kids are the best friends in the world one minute and the next minute they’re fighting like cats and dogs.
They hate each other so much that you wonder if you hate your life too.
Getting siblings to be best friends would be a bonus we would love, but most parents hope that they can at least live with each other peacefully.
SO, IS SIBLING RIVALRY NORMAL?
Absolutely. Sibling rivalry is a normal part of family life. If you have siblings, you can think back and remember how the squabbles were a part of your daily life.
In fact, conflicts will be a part of human life as long as you live with other human beings under a roof. It need not be a sibling, but can be any other person – spouse, parents, friends or anyone else.
When we have to share our belongings and space with other people, and when there are differences in opinions, arguments can arise between any two humans, not only children.
Children do not fight to make you crazy. They are just little humans who do not know how to deal with conflicts. That’s why they love to play with each other for ten minutes, and they fight when a conflict arises.
It’s upon parents to teach them how to deal with conflicts. You can’t expect them to stop fighting just because you tell them to “be good kids”. When a conflict arises, they feel so many difficult emotions and they need to be taught how to properly vent them out.
The usual disciplining methods used by parents like punishing, bribing or threatening don’t work either. What they need is real skills.
Sibling rivalry is healthy because kids learn patience, problem-solving skills, and resilience from dealing with it. These are all life skills they will need in life.
And they need their parents’ help to learn these skills.
Even though a minimal amount of sibling rivalry is healthy, too much rivalry can have a damaging effect on the relationship between siblings.
An unhealthy amount of sibling conflicts can lead to enmity, low self-esteem and hatred towards siblings and parents. Therefore, we need to know how to keep it in check and raise kids who can get along with each other well.
So, let’s see how can we stop sibling rivalry.
1. DO NOT COMPARE
I am sure you must have heard these statements from parents.
“Why can’t you keep your room clean like your sister?”
“ Eat fast! See, Jen finished her food. You’re so slow!”
“ Mark scored high marks in math, you must learn to be like him.”
Parents may have only the best interests in their mind when they compare their child with their siblings or peers.
But the message a child gets is,
“She only likes what my sister does!”
“Whatever Jen does is right, whatever I do is wrong. Dad never sees the right things I do”.
“ I don’t like math, and I can never be like him”
Each child is born with his/her own unique character traits. Even though your children came from the same womb and they may even look alike, they all have their uniqueness to add to this world.
One of your kids may excel in academics and the other one in sports. For one, sharing is easy, but not for the other one. One may be able to forgive and forget easily, not the other one.
Instead of asking your kids to be more like their sister/brother, celebrate their uniqueness. Celebrate the one trait that makes her different from her brother and vice versa.
No one can become like another person. You can only outperform your previous version and grow yourself as a person. Any child can be successful if their interests and talents are nurtured rather than pushing them to be like someone else.
When a conflict arises between siblings, instead of mentioning people, talk only about the problem.
For example, instead of saying,
“If your sister was here, she would have helped me with the chores.”, you can say,
“Can you help me with the dishes? Baby is crying, I need to feed her.”
The first sentence brings unnecessary envy and feelings of low self-esteem in a child.
And also, let your kids know what their unique characteristics are. Words have power, and the words you speak have immense power to make or break a child.
So, let them know that they don’t need to be like anyone else and they are loved for who they are. It will help to prevent the thoughts that cause rivalry in kids like, “Mom likes my sister better than me”.
2. GIVE INDIVIDUAL ATTENTION
Giving each child the individual attention they need will help to reduce their competitiveness in them. One-on-one time is an excellent way to connect with kids.
Try not to talk about other children during this time. Instead, use this time to talk about their day or listen to anything they want to say. When there is no one else around, kids can open up with you easily and talk about their worries.
It helps you to get to know them more and understand their needs.
Sometimes, I do coloring or crochet with my older one and I tell her how I enjoyed the time with her. It helps her to know that I love her presence in my life. Later, if she feels she is not important compared to her sister, I hope she would remember my words. We all need reassurance from our loved ones that we are important, right?
One-on-one time may not always be about doing happy things. You can spend a special time with children when they face difficult feelings, especially after a sibling fight.
When I talk to my elder daughter about her feelings, she reveals so much about how her sister makes her feel and why she feels angry about a problem with her sister. It helps me to understand how I need to teach both about conflict resolutions and what they need help on.
It is also important to let other kids know that “they all get special time”.
When I put my daughters to bed, I spend time with each kid to talk. And when I talk to my elder one, her sister immediately tries to grab my attention towards her. She fears she won’t get the attention.
And I tell her something like this:
“Your big sister wants to talk to me about her art class today. I will get to you when she is done”.
This way, no one feels ignored and understand that they will get the chance.
3. AVOID LABELING CHILDREN
Each child exhibits different talents and that leads to putting them in roles. We like to say “She is the artist in our family”, or “He is the responsible one” etc.
Labeling children with these titles is not gonna help anyone. It makes the labeled one and the other siblings make feel bad.
When we say “he is the responsible one”, it creates an unnecessary burden for the child to live up to the label. And for the other siblings who listen to this may feel that “they can’t be responsible” because anyway he is gonna outshine them. And they develop a lack of belief in their abilities. It also leads to jealousy among siblings.
So instead of assigning roles, you can praise children when they do a good act.
When a child does something praiseworthy, you can say,
“I like how you did that task responsibly without anyone guiding you”,
“You are always the responsible one”.
This makes him feel better and also inspires his siblings to act better. It is a small change in wording but can make a huge difference in sibling relationships.
The same is true for negative acts too.
If your kid always likes to tease his sister, don’t label him as a “mean person”.
What this does is, he starts to see himself as a mean person. And he will always try to live up to that role unconsciously (unless something happens to make him want to change).
Instead of saying “You always do this to your sister, you are so mean”, you can say, “I know you have the ability to be kind to her”.
This will make him think differently. He will realize he has the power to be nice too. And also, his siblings would feel the same about him.
If you tag him as a mean person, he and his siblings would act accordingly to make it true forever.
There are no eternally good or bad humans in this world. Only “real” humans who do good things, and make mistakes, but are capable of anything they want to be in life.
Labeling spoils it for kids.
4. TEACH KIDS THE SKILLS TO DEAL WITH SIBLING RIVALRY
This one is so so important. We can do a lot to help siblings cope with the tension between them. Teach them the skills to solve the conflicts peacefully. Conflict solving skills include teaching creative methods to express anger and negotiation skills.
Siblings fight not necessarily because they don’t love each other. It’s because they don’t know to express the anger that arises with conflict. You can tell them that the anger they feel is valid but it’s not okay to lash it out on other people in violent ways.
Calling names and hitting should not be allowed. Instead teach them the following techniques to express anger:
- Walk away from the scene
- Take deep breaths
- Count from 1-10
- Express their hurt in words
- Write/draw their feelings in a paper
- Punch a pillow or a stuffed toy
The negotiation skills you must teach are:
- Taking turns and waiting for their turn
- Dividing tasks/objects/roles when it’s ok for them
- Trading objects so that each one gets a benefit
If a problem keeps coming up, hold a family meeting. Listen to what each child has to say and acknowledge everyone’s feelings. And let them brainstorm to come up with solutions.
Take everyone’s opinion and decide what could serve as the best solution for the family. Set firm rules and give suggestions to each kid about what they can do when the scenario happens again.
5. ACKNOWLEDGE AND EMPATHIZE
Empathy is one of the key tools used in positive parenting. Whenever a sibling fight occurs and the kid comes to you complaining, listen to him attentively and acknowledge all his feelings. He might be the one who started the fight or he might be a victim. Do not take sides or enquire who started the fight.
No matter what, acknowledge his feelings and empathize with him.
For example, if your kids fight over a toy, you can say,
“Oh, he snatched your toy. You must be feeling mad.”
Don’t reply with comments like,
“He is always mean like that”.
“You are the one who started the fight”.
Instead, describe the situation.
“I see both of you want to play with the same toy. It is a tough situation. I am sure you can work it out between each other.”
And remind them of the problem-solving skills you taught them.
When you take sides and one child’s feelings get ignored, sibling rivalry grows.
6. TREAT THEM UNIQUELY, NOT EQUALLY
I believe in equality when it comes to treating children with respect, no matter how problematic their behavior seems to be.
But I don’t believe in providing for their needs equally. If one of my daughters needs to buy a new pair of shoes, she gets it and her sister doesn’t.
We try to provide according to each child’s needs. We don’t need to feel compelled to buy for other kids just because we bought something for a kid. That being said, if I buy candy for one kiddo, I make sure her sister gets it too. But you can’t have the same rule for everything.
Like parents, children also compare between themselves whether they are receiving everything their sibling gets – from love to possessions. They complain “You always listen to him only”, or “You love her better” or, ”You bought a dress for her, not for me.”
We need to convince them that we are not trying to provide “equally”, but according to everyone’s legitimate needs. If we are trying to provide according to their demands so as they are treated equally, we will never be able to keep up.
And children start expecting that too. If they know that their “needs” are always met, they would feel safe and learn to not complain.
7. INTERVENE ONLY WHEN NECESSARY
You need to give your children the opportunity to solve a conflict between themselves, for them to learn and for your own sanity. If you have taught the problem-solving skills, wait for them use it before your intervention.
Let them practice it and intervene only when they complain and need your support. Sometimes, a fight becomes aggressive and physical and you must step in to separate the fighting parties.
Separate them and allow a cool-off period. After that, you can remind them about the house rule of “no hitting” and how they can talk about their feelings without hurting each other.
8. IT’S OKAY NOT TO SHARE
Adults don’t share their belongings readily when someone asks for it. Likewise, it’s unkind to expect kids to part with their belongings when someone else wants it.
When a conflict happens over sharing an object, try the following approaches.
- You can encourage the child who demands to share, to wait for her turn and acknowledge her feelings at the same time. I know it’s hard to wait, but I can’t let you snatch it from him. We will wait for our turn.
- You can teach the child who has the toy to stand for herself. Right now, I am playing with this, you can have it when I am done.
It’s hard for little children to wait for their turn, but they need the skill to learn to control their emotions and it’s gonna serve them well in adulthood.
9. ENCOURAGE KIDS TO TAKE THEIR SPACE
It’s hard being kids because they are expected to share their space and their belongings with someone else. But remember, like adults, kids need their space too.
My 7-year old tells me how much she appreciates the quietness when her sister is not around. I know she loves her sister and needs her prescence. But I also understand it when she enjoys her space. Maybe she is an introvert like me.
Even if not, they should get their space when they get overwhelmed and emotional. And it’s always a good idea to separate kids when they are irritated, hungry or tired.
Encourage kids to take their space by going to their room or a quiet corner when they look overwhelmed. It helps to prevent a squabble before it starts.
Kids may not be able to comprehend the emotions of their siblings. So you can tell them, “Your brother is irritated right now because he is hungry. Let’s give him some space to have his food and be happy again.”
This helps them to learn to be empathetic towards their siblings and understand others’ emotions.
10. TEACH KIDS TO APPRECIATE THEIR SIBLINGS’ GOOD DEEDS
Notice the acts of kindness between your children and praise their efforts.
In my family, I like to play a game where we talk about what we appreciate in each other.
I sit with my kids and I begin by talking about their good acts that touched me. I ask them to talk about each other as well.
It helps them to notice the little acts of goodness that go unappreciated and teaches them to be grateful for having a sibling. Also, it helps them to realize what each others’ presence means to them. So often hatred grows in their minds for the sibling because they only focus on the frustration.
This exercise helps to develop a strong bond between siblings which helps them to get along with each other better.
11. CONTROL PARENTAL ANGER
For siblings to get along with each other, they need parents to teach and show the skills to control anger.
The way you resolve conflicts with your spouse and kids themselves sets a strong example for kids.
If you hit and yell at them, there is no use in wondering why they hit each other. They learn not only from your words, but actions too – in fact, more from actions.
So if you feel angry or overwhelmed when the kids fight, excuse yourself and take the time to cool off. And then respond calmly.
Often when my kids start squabbling, I know what’s coming ahead, so I prepare myself in advance to respond calmly. If you can anticipate certain situations, it helps to prepare your responses beforehand to respond gently and calmly.
Implementing these tips can help you to deal with sibling rivalry. Remember, they need you to lead by example and repeat the same lessons over and over for them to finally be able to learn them. Kids are like that. You can’t expect them to act on a lesson immediately, but only with repetition, assurance and patience from a parent.
More parenting posts:
- How to get kids started on doing chores
- 12 qualities of a good parent
- What every daughter needs from her mom
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