Emily listened to her two-year-old daughter, Anna, arguing fiercely with her four-year-old brother Jack and was helpless to intervene as she tried to soothe her newborn son Leon off to sleep. The sudden change in family dynamics had caused the sibling rivalry between the two older kids to flare up dramatically. For Emily, who was sleep deprived and exhausted already, another day of bickering and squabbling had begun.
Sibling rivalry is an all too common part of family dynamics. Whilst often frustrating and distressing, it is also a crucial element of family life. The causes are many but it is important to recognise that it is normal and often necessary. Parenting guru Adele Faber, the author with Elaine Mazlish of the classic Siblings Without Rivalry agrees that some degree of sibling rivalry is healthy: “From their verbal sparring they learn the difference between being clever and being hurtful. From the normal irritations of living together, they learn how to assert themselves, defend themselves, compromise. And sometimes, from their envy of each other’s special abilities, they become inspired to work harder, persist and achieve.” Sibling rivalry enables children to learn to articulate their frustration and hopefully find constructive ways to resolve conflict with others.
Key Triggers for sibling rivalry
Personal dispositions: Children’s differing dispositions will have a significant influence on triggers for sibling rivalry. For instance, an over-anxious child will often clash with a child who pushes the parental boundaries. They may react out of fear or concern for that sibling, but this will usually create conflict. As hard as it is, parents often need to step back and allow siblings to learn to adjust to differing dispositions and moods of siblings.
Growing up is hard to do: It is inevitable that as children move through different milestones their needs will alter. A toddler may find it hard to understand why the baby gets more attention than they do. As a result they may regress in their behaviour and act aggressively towards them. Understanding and distraction plays a key role when dealing with situations like this.
Parental management: Children are excellent sponges. If they see parents managing disputes in a negative or destructive way, that is the model they will adopt. It is important that the grown ups in the household work to resolve conflict in a way that sends a positive message to the children.
Needs: When a child is sick or requires extra support, it is often difficult for siblings to cope with the extra attention being gained by the sick sibling. Siblings will often play up or become needy themselves to gain attention or because they are frightened. It is important for parents to ensure children have extra support at this time.
Strategies for dealing with sibling rivalry
Introducing a new baby into the family is a time of transition but often, for older siblings; it can highlight and exacerbate tensions as well. However no-one wants to live in a war zone and Faber is quick to point out that if not managed properly sibling rivalry can: “seriously demoralise one or both of the children and even cause permanent damage”
With a few strategies in place, harmony – or at least the kind of harmony that is possible with little ones in the home – can be restored.
Dealing with rivalry between older siblings
- Each child is an individual and it is often difficult to treat them the same way. The way you deal with a four year old will be different to the two year old. That’s absolutely fine.
- Don’t compare one child’s achievements to another. Set goals and have expectations of that child that are unique to their own little set of needs and abilities. This will go a long way to reducing resentment between siblings.
- Encourage your children to pursue their individual interests. For instance, if one child likes colouring in and the other wants to read stories, print off some colouring in pictures off the Internet and sit with your child while they colour in. The other child can sit with you and read while the other sibling is occupied.
- Be generous with your praise. It’s important to be specific though: “It’s so lovely to see the two of you sharing that game nicely. Well done both of you!”
- Avoid getting too caught up in squabbles. As referee it is your responsibility to remain calm. Encourage your children to learn to walk away and then return to compromise with each other once they have calmed down.
- Acknowledge their anger. Let you child know their feelings may be valid but they have to learn to manage them. “I know you are angry Lisa has your toy, but you can’t hit her just because you want it back.”
- Trust your instincts. Quarrels between siblings are inevitable and you should encourage them to learn to sort it out themselves, however you must step in and mediate when you feel its necessary.
Sibling rivalry when a new baby arrives
- It is helpful to prepare for the new arrival by talking about the baby you are carrying with them. An excellent way to do this is to show them ultrasound pictures of you have them.
- Let them feel your tummy and help with shopping for clothes for the new baby.
- Use a teddy or doll they like and role-play dressing it and changing it so they can see what kinds of things you will be doing with the new sibling.
- If they regress be kind but firm with them.
- It is often hard to find special time with siblings with the demands of a new baby. It’s useful to set up a special box next to where you feed your baby. Encourage your child to sit near you and turn the pages of their favourite book as you read to them while feeding the baby.
When more help may be needed
It is important to note that there is sometimes a need to seek outside support. When Lisa saw her four-year old son viciously biting his younger sister Tayla on the arm she knew she needed outside support to deal with his violence. It is time for parents to step in when fights become violent, involve weapons or if verbal communication is derogatory or intimidating.
Symptoms of sibling abuse include: when one sibling actively avoids the other; distinctive changes in sleeping and eating patterns; acting out the abuse during play-time. If a parent sees this occurring it is important to work together as a family to resolve a potential crisis situation. In addition to using the suggestions listed above, parents should consider contacting their local GP for advice and support.
All family units are unique and finding the best way to manage them takes patience and time. For some families, professional help is needed to help them manage the new arrangements. For most families though, consistency and understanding the causes of sibling rivalry and managing this appropriately helps to restore harmonious family dynamics.
Last Published* December, 2022
*Please note that the published date may not be the same as the date that the content was created and that information above may have changed since.