Left unchecked, sibling rivalry can harm a child's self-image and cloud lifelong relationships between brothers and sisters. Parents have only to think about their own siblings. Many adults continue to struggle with issues of competition and favoured status. While you cannot eliminate all sibling rivalry, you can take practical steps to help your children get along.
Don't ignore sibling rivalry
Step in when your children argue. If you do not get involved or set limits or make it clear that you expect your children to treat each other respectfully, they will assume you accept their behaviour.
Children younger than 5 to 7 years old are too egocentric to understand a brother's or sister's point of view. Supervise your children and give frequent reminders about how to act. For example, say, "If you're angry with Jason, use words but don't hit." You can reason with children older than 7 since they are able to consider another person's feelings and point of view. Try "Let your brother play with you for a while so he won't feel left out."
With your help, siblings may be able to sit down and work out their differences. Urge your children to come up with a solution each can live with.
Try to deal fairly with fights
One problem in managing sibling quarrels is that they are multi-layered - they are seldom about just one thing. They may be fighting over the use of a toy or gameboy, or privacy and the right to have a bedroom, or they may be trying to join a sister or brother's game.
But underneath, they may be fighting for power within the family. Brothers and sisters have long-standing relationships which often give rise to a host of conflicts. A brother who thinks that his sister is more likely to get good grades or win sporting trophies, may be more likely to get very angry when they quarrel over something else - such as who gets which place in the car, or who gets first go with the new computer game. A sister who feels constantly excluded from her brother's fascinating games will fight hard to keep her new crayons to herself.
When brothers and sisters quarrel, they often want to test a parent to see which child the parent will protect or `side with'.
So, what can parents do, given the quarrels are likely to be complicated? If a parent sides with one child, then the other will feel (unfairly) powerful while the other feels (unfairly) slighted.
If parents interfere, they may be adding to the grudges that so easily build up between brothers and sisters. The best strategy is to guide the children to solve their own problems.
Here are ways of helping our children deal with their own quarrels:
There has to be `give' and `take' in these solutions (otherwise one child feels weak and the other strong, and this relative inequality gives rise to further hostility). You might ask, `Can you agree not to bother your sister when she has a friend? If you can do that, then there should be a time when you want to be alone, and she agrees not to bother you.' In this way, the child who has to `keep out' does not lose face, and is not labelled a `nuisance' because his sister has to reciprocate by keeping out of his way.
Parents can let the children form their own `contract'. Their brief is simply to make sure that both children agree to the solution (who goes first, and for how long, or who keeps out of whose way at what time), and that there will be no further arguing about this same issue. In this way, each child is given responsibility for keeping the (temporary) peace.
* View all children involved in a quarrel as equally responsible.
Parents sometimes come to the aid of one child more frequently because they see her brother or sister as the stronger child. But if you are coming to the aid of one child frequently, then there is a fair chance that the child you are helping has set you up. If we assume each child has equal responsibility for the quarrel, then we avoid favouritism in the following ways:
Children are often jealous of each other and believe - with or without justification - that they are not receiving a fair share of parents' attention.
Be sensitive to your children's desire for fairness. Accept and encourage each of your children, regardless of differences. Avoid labelling or comparing. "Megan's the stubborn one." "I wish you were as outgoing as your brother." If one child is clearly more talented or attractive, all the more reason to give unconditional love and equal attention to all.
Be low key about age differences
If you assign privileges or responsibilities based solely on age, one child will always be angry. "Why does Carolyn get to watch another show?"
While it is natural to expect more of an older child, such expectations can reinforce rivalry. If a child is told, "You should know better than to fight with your sister - go to your room!" he will not come back ready to be more responsible. Instead he will feel unfairly treated and may retaliate against his sister to get rid of his anger. The younger child, seeing the older one blamed, may feel she can get away with bad behavior.
On the other hand, a younger child may become angry if her older sibling is always allowed to stay outside later or sit in the front sear of the car.
Listen to your children
If siblings feel their complaints are heard, they will bicker less. Listen to both sides and ask for suggestions. "Why do you think you have trouble getting along? How can we make things better?"
Talk to your children together or individually, or try a family meeting where each person speaks without interruption. Agree on at least one action that each family member can take to improve sibling relations.
Listening is particularly important when there is a new baby. If your older child says, "Take him back to the hospital!" she is really expressing insecurity. Tell her, "We know it's hard having a new baby brother." Give her extra attention. The more secure she feels, the more accepting of her sibling she will be.
Spend time with your children
Many parents mistakenly ignore sibling rivalry because of the common belief that children bicker to get attention. If children fight to get attention, they may really need it. Make spending time with your children a high priority. Rearrange your schedule, if possible, so you are more available. Try to find some time every week for each sibling separately. As children move into the teenage years and spend less time with the family, encourage 'sibling time" when your children go to lunch, play a game, or just hang out in each other's bedroom.
Spending more time with your children will always pay off. It is one more way you can help them decrease their rivalry and form a strong, positive relationship.
Remember, although you can understand sibling quarrels, and help your children manage them, it is too much to expect that you can put a final end to them. Learning to get along with brothers and sisters is one of the best ways that children can learn to get along with other people in adult life.
Jenni Pearce, Psychologist (2009)
Child & Educational Psychology
6 Edward Street, NORWOOD 5067 South Australia, Australia.
Telephone: 0407 726 332
Fax: (08) 8362 0332