How to Manage Sibling Rivalries

How to Manage Sibling Rivalries
Photo: Patrik Stanek, Shutterstock

If you have more than one child, you have probably noticed that they don’t always get along. Especially now, with both winter weather and a pandemic keeping us largely together at home, the rivalries among siblings may have reached a height that previously seemed unfathomable. The bad news is: Sibling rivalries are essentially unavoidable. The good news is: You can manage them in a way that reduces conflict.

Before we talk about how to calm down the tensions between siblings, let’s talk about why these rivalries occur in the first place.

The psychology behind sibling rivalries

Siblings don’t fight all the time because they just happen to find each other annoying. Children — particularly in early and middle childhood — are constantly trying to figure out where they fit within the world and their own family. Are they the smart one, the athletic one, or the funny one? As Jessica Grose writes for the New York Times:

Psychologically, sibling rivalry serves a developmental purpose: It helps children figure out what is unique and special about themselves, otherwise known as “differentiation.” Children want to be seen as the most special by their parents, so they’re “always going to push for preferential treatment,” over their siblings, [Jeanine] Vivona, [a professor of psychology at the College of New Jersey who has studied sibling rivalry,] said. But they may also shape their interests and personalities around their siblings’ skills and desires.

Kids may actually avoid activities or roles their siblings play because the rivalries are all about defining who they are as an individual. At the same time, they’re often jockeying for their parents’ time and positive attention, which leads to conflict. (Oh, mum likes your artwork, huh? Maybe that’s why I suddenly want to rip it up.)

So, what do you do about it?

Avoid comparing them to each other

When one child excels in school and the other can’t be bothered to even bring their assignments home with them, it is tempting to say something to the effect of, “Why can’t you try harder in school, like your brother?” However, that’s not a motivating sentiment for a child, and it only serves as further proof that the other child is, in fact, your favourite.

Focus as much as possible on each child’s strengths and good qualities. And when there is something you want them to work on, whether it’s related to diligence in school or behaviour at home, talk to them about it only in the context of their specific situation and not in comparison to their sibling.

Also, whenever possible, punish them in private, out of their sibling’s earshot. Kids use a parent’s criticism of their sibling against them (by either mocking them or taking the opportunity to boss them around), and that’s less than helpful. On the flip side, when you see them being helpful to each other or getting along, praise them both to encourage more of that type behaviour.

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Watch for patterns in the conflicts

Chances are, there are certain situations that are more likely to light their tempers on fire. Maybe they often clash after school when they’re cranky and hungry and vying for control of the TV. Kids do need to learn how to mediate their own arguments, but if you know certain circumstances are likely to lead to fighting, try to be more present during those times to help them work through their conflict or set up some new ground rules to try to avoid it entirely.

Do fun activities together regularly as a family

Getting one-on-one time with each child is great — but so is choosing activities the whole family enjoys doing together, and doing them regularly. Maybe you’re all into board games or miniature golf or family movie night. Even if a little (or a lot of) arguing has to occur about which game, which movie, or who gets the blue golf ball, it’s key for siblings to have frequent positive experiences together to balance out all that bickering.

Also, avoid pitting them against each other at all costs. It might be tempting to set up “fun” little “competitions” with each other, such as “who can clean up their toys faster?” But the last thing you want to do is foster any additional competition between them than what’s already there. Instead, have them work together by challenging them to clean up all the toys together in a race against the clock.

Wait it out

Once you’ve done all of that, the next step is to, well, wait for them to get older. I know that’s not particularly helpful, but as kids reach adolescents and drift toward adulthood themselves, their relationship often evolves from one of a competitive nature to one of a closer, more supportive one. It’s incredibly common for kids to fight incessantly when they’re young and be thick as thieves when they get older. So as long as you’re paying attention and doing your best to treat each child fairly, chances are good that all will be well in the end.

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