How to deal with children’s sibling rivalry

Parents can encourage sharing and keep rivalry at bay (Alamy/PA)

Parents can encourage sharing and keep rivalry at bay (Alamy/PA)

As adults, we might joke about being the favorite kid or get into a blazing argument at Christmas because an innocent family game of Monopoly turned WWIII.

And it’s easy to laugh at these incidents and remember that you truly love your brother or sister — but for children who are still developing social and emotional skills, sibling rivalry can cause serious upset.

“It’s healthy for young people to experience some competition,” says Matt Buttery, CEO of the Triple P Positive Parenting Program. “It can help motivate them to perform well in performance situations, like school and sports.”

There are limits, however, and it is better for everyone if brothers and sisters do not fight every day.

“Relationships can’t thrive when there’s constant competition, bickering, and fighting over toys, games, or who gets attention,” Buttery continues.

“Research has shown that early aggression and rivalry between siblings, if left untreated, can lead to ongoing learning, social and mental health problems.

“It can also be distressing for parents when there is conflict between their children, and it can disrupt the normal rhythm in a home.”

Without realizing it, parents may encourage a “winner-takes-all” attitude in their children.

“Sometimes parents give a child what is called a compliment or a price without realizing that they are starting to make labels,” says lead family therapist Dr. Kalanit Ben-Ari, author of Small Steps To Great Parenting.

“For example, ‘You’re a good eater,’ ‘You’re very academic,’ ‘You’re beautiful’ — even the positive comments parents give their children can sow the seeds of competition.”

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Birth order can also play a role, she adds: “The older child might feel like they’ve lost their place in their parents’ eyes because there’s another child — that creates tension.”

On the occasion of Siblings’ Day (April 10), experts explain how to encourage cooperation between siblings and what to do when conflicts arise…

Establish clear family rules

“Having a few simple family rules for playing with others is a good first step, including things like variety, gentle behavior, and kind words,” advises Buttery. Consider their age so the rules are age appropriate.

When these things are in place, children know what is expected of themselves and each other. “Take the time to discuss these with your child or young person. You might want to use the same rules as your preschool or school,” adds Buttery.

Give positive encouragement

As children grow up, they begin to develop social skills and understand collaboration.

“When you see your child sharing or taking turns, offer positive encouragement, praise, and attention instead of focusing too much on negative behaviors and telling them to ‘stop fighting,'” says Buttery.

“Similarly, activities like board games or card games are great ways to teach cooperative play. Your child will learn a lot by picking up social cues on how you behave and interact with others.”

Reward effort, not success

While offering rewards can be a good incentive for schoolwork or extracurricular activities, be careful not to focus too much on things like exam scores, test scores, or medals.

“I tell my kids, ‘The number doesn’t tell me who you are — if you work hard, it’s more impressive,'” says Ben-Ari. “The award has to be about effort, patience, being a good friend, being kind, not the ultimate goal of what we in our culture call success.”

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Be a coach, not a judge

When it comes to dealing with conflict, Ben-Ari says it’s better to think about coaching children than acting as a judge and jury.

“So if you intervene, don’t take anything [sides], you reflect what you see. For example: “I see that two of you want to play with the same toy. That is interesting. I trust you will find out.

However, when it comes to physical altercations, safety always comes first.

Ben-Ari adds: “We say, ‘I see two brothers who are very dangerous to each other, so it’s time to relax. Each of you go to your room and we’ll talk about that later.

Don’t focus on fairness

“That’s not fair!” is a phrase children often whine about – but parents don’t always have to divide their attention quite equally.

“I’ll say to a kid, ‘I’ll finish the story with your brother and I’ll come over to do your project,'” Ben-Ari explains, rather than specifying that each kid gets equal time. Because maybe you need five minutes, and you need half an hour. Or maybe one of them is having a difficult time and needs more time.”

Don’t play favourites

“We all know who the favorite kid is — that’s the funny thing,” Ben-Ari says with a laugh — not that most parents would ever admit it. It is important that parents spend time with each child individually.

“They don’t want to know if you love them more or less,” she explains. “They want to understand their uniqueness in your life. So another way of saying it is, ‘I love you in a unique way, no one can take your place in my heart’.”

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