Sibling rivalry does not necessarily begin when a new sibling is born and end when siblings reach a particular age. It can happen before the next child is even born or when the younger child begins walking, talking and getting into the older siblings’ space and toys. Some experience it when both are school-aged and competing for social status or academic achievements.
Why does it happen?
Differences in temperament can affect how siblings relate to one another. Conflicting personality types can trigger negative feelings in one another and impact how siblings understand each other. Development also plays a role.
Toddlers tend to be protective of their items and have difficulty sharing. Justice is important to school-aged children which can make them sensitive to their perception of situations being unfair. Teenagers are asserting their independence, and having to collaborate with their siblings can cause tension.
Here’s what to do:
Set Rules And Offer Options
If there is a threat of harm to self, others, or property, get involved. If one child is victimizing another or putting another down, get involved. Rules to set during conflict: no name calling; no hitting, pinching, or kicking; no yelling. No making fun of a child who receives a consequence.
Options to offer during conflict: finding something else to do, trying again later, going to another game, talking it out, sharing and taking turns, taking a break and discussing when everyone calms down, ignoring it, telling them to stop, apologizing, or compromising.
Teach the rules and options when things are calm and there is no conflict.
When siblings come to you during the conflict, coach them to resolve it on their own via these options. Support children in figuring out a “win-win” situation so that all parties gain something. Be a reflective listener and invite them to problem solve. “Bob, you feel Linda grabbed the toy out of your hand. Linda, you feel you had the toy first. What solutions do you both have to solve this problem?”
When parents get involved, one child is often blamed and one child is often rescued. There are many reasons why children may be assigned these roles, including child’s age or parent expectation, and these same roles may be assigned time and time again. This can lead to resentment and continued conflict. When getting involved, focus on teaching conflict resolution skills to all parties involved as opposed to seeking to rescue or blame.
Children tend to have a strong sense of justice and are natural scorekeepers. As best as you can, divide tasks equally among the children based on their developmental abilities. Explain that children have different needs based on their age and get different responsibilities and perks based on their age including bed times, curfews, and even new items that are purchased. If children sense that your decisions are fair, they are more likely to accept them. It also gives them things to look forward to or work towards. Explain to children that while things may not always seem fair, you will always work to meet their needs.
Although children can experience a sense of loss when a sibling enters the family, there is much to gain such as the skills of patience, negotiation, compromise, and conflict resolution.
Graziella Simonetti is a parent educator for EAC Network’s Long Island Parenting Institute and works as an early childhood social worker for the New York City Department of Education. She holds an advanced certificate in parent education from Adelphi University and is a NYSPEP credentialed parenting educator. Simonetti is a former kindergarten teacher.