“Mom! Jimmy hit me!”
“Well what were you doing to him?”
“Nothing! He started it!”
Do you find this being typical dialogue in your home? At some point in parenting, if you have more than one child, sibling rivalry will rear its ugly head. We can’t escape it entirely, but there are ways to lessen this problematic situation.
Let’s begin by defining it. According to Merriam-Webster, it is a “competition between siblings especially for the attention, affection, and approval of their parents.” Oh man! That sure does put parents in an awkward position.
Although all kids have a tendency to argue, the closer-in-age and same-gender children tend to have more drama than any other set of siblings. Being similar puts kids at a higher advantage for promoting competition. The closeness in age can put pressure on the younger one to keep up with the older one, and if they are of the same gender, both kids can find themselves competing for the attention of a specific parent.
Normal or Not?
You often hear parents explain, “Oh, they fight like any other normal set of siblings.” But what is normal? Compare one person’s perspective to the next and it may be completely different. A better way to examine it might be to consider how often sibling rivalry occurs in the home and how intensely it is experienced. How does their rivalry affect the family dynamics and each member individually?
In 2012, a research study indicated that conflictual sibling rivalry is closely related to negative behaviors such as aggression and anti-social tendencies (including substance use), whereas healthy sibling relationships are linked to positive interactions with friends and intimate partners, a greater ability to adjust to academic pressures, and improved prosperity and mental health. In a separate study (2013), sibling aggression is closely linked to the decline of positive mental health. Additionally, whether aggression comes from a sibling or a peer, the effects on well-being are the same.
On a positive note, recent research shows that parents can also benefit from practicing conflict resolution with the kids in the home. During the study, as parents taught and guided their children to communicate positively with siblings, mom and dad were able to borrow the same tactics. Parents became better at managing their own emotions, therefore improving their overall mental health.
So what can you do?
Avoid comparisons and labels. Comparing one child to the next only promotes competition. Instead, acknowledge their own interests and express your support for their individuality. Oftentimes, children are given labels in the family such as “the smart one” or “the artsy one.” It may seem harmless, but placing labels can actually restrict the child from attempting something they find to be challenging.
Don’t get caught in the middle. Don’t act as a judge or try to determine who is right and who is wrong. This only creates more conflict and hostility between siblings. First, allow siblings to resolve their own arguments, although if you see the argument escalating or getting out of hand, then it is time to step in. Never allow kids to become physically abusive with one another. Nonetheless, use this opportunity to guide them to making good decisions about communication. Listen to what they are trying to say to each other and steer clear from making criticisms. Many times, kids have difficulty expressing themselves which only frustrates them even more. You might try something like, “It sounds like what your brother is trying to say is…” or “What do you hear your sister say?” Ask each child to clarify if the message is coming across inaccurately.
Spend “quality” time with each child. Spend time with each child and as a family. This does not mean you have to spend a lot of money or a great deal of time. Life can get pretty busy but a 10 minute “quality” conversation can go a long way with kids. Put the phone away and make sure your child gets your full attention. Ask questions and show interest. The more your kid feels connected to you, the less they feel the need to act out or compete with their sibling.
Aside from taking certain steps to minimize sibling rivalry, it’s necessary to understand the longstanding emotional and mental effects that can occur if ignored. Although sibling rivalry might be all too common in our society, it does not excuse us from being proactive. As parents we want to see our children thrive and grow, and part of becoming that healthy individual means learning to resolve conflict with others. The early relationship building experiences a child receives can leave a lasting impact on their mental health for years to come, but also your own!
Feinberg, M.E., Solmeyer, A.R., Hostetler, M.L., Sakuma, K., Jones, D., & McHale, S.M. (2012). Siblings are special: Initial test of a new approach for preventing youth behavior problems. Journal of Adolescent Health, 53(2), 166-173. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2012.10.004
Ravindran, N., Engle, J.M., McElwain, N.L., & Kramer, L. Fostering parents’ emotion regulation through a sibling-focused experimental intervention. (2015). Journal of Family Psychology, 29(3), 458-468. doi: 10.1037/fam0000084
Tucker, C.J., Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., & Shattuck, A. (2013). Association of sibling aggression with child and adolescent mental health. Pediatrics, 132(1), 79-84. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-3801