How to Avoid Sibling Rivalry

By Marcia Hall

There isn’t much that is more infuriating as a parent than hearing and seeing your children bicker and fight constantly.  If you had siblings close in age growing up, you likely remember having your older brothers or sisters pick on you or having your younger brothers and sisters constantly annoy you.  As families grow, rarely are the children in the house consulted for their opinion or given the opportunity to say, “No, I do not want a sibling,” so it should be no surprise to parents that these little people who are forced to live in the same house, share the same toys and often sleep in the same room will argue from time to time.  In fact, when siblings are never at odds it might be a sign that they are not forming a strong connection.  It is through disagreements with siblings that children learn important life lessons, which can ultimately bring them closer together.

Though some sibling rivalry is inevitable and healthy, there are some ways that you can ease the tension when fights break out and help the children learn to work together to avoid some of the arguments.

Individualize your children – including multiples. Each child is a completely different person, with strengths, weaknesses and things they love.  Be sure to encourage that individuality in them.  Spend one-on-one time regularly with each child, letting him choose what you do together.  Point out the areas in his life that you see him excelling in as well as the things you see him struggling with.  Encourage him when he sees his sibling doing something better than him, pointing out the things he does really well too.

Model how to compromise and encourage your child to make concessions with you from time to time.  As you go through your day to day life, work with your child to make small but noticeable compromises with him, pointing out what you are doing.  Then, when he does not get his way, point out that he is compromising too.

Let them each have their own space and their own toys that they are not required to share with anyone.   To a parent, the toys collected by children may seem like junk, but to a child they are the things that help form his identity.   It is important that your child has a safe place to be when he senses that he needs to be alone.   If you sense that a child is under a lot of stress, you can encourage him to walk away from his siblings for a while and play or read by himself instead of letting the situation escalate into a fight.

Avoid continuously separating your children to fix the disagreement.  It can be very tempting to do this in order to keep the peace.  However, separating your bickering children every time they are in the middle of a fight sends the wrong message.  It tells your child that when he does not get along with his sibling, he does not have to deal with the dispute.  There may be times it is appropriate for your children to spend some time apart for a short time, however, you must always bring them back together to discuss the situation when they have calmed down.

Try to avoid entering into the argument.  The majority of the time, the best thing to do during a sibling fight is to let them work it out.  Chances are one or all of your children will try to drag you into the discussion.  If you do get involved, limit your participation to words of advice.  Give suggestions to each child on how he might approach the situation.  “Have you tried to offer Lilly a different toy to see if she would be ok with it?” or “It might be a good idea to explain to Joey why you really want to use that toy”.

Discipline physical fighting as you would if the child got physical with another child outside of the family.  If your child was on the playground and physically hurt another child, what would you do?  It is no different when he hurts one of his siblings.  If physically hurting another child is inappropriate for your child to do, that includes hurting his sibling.

Avoid asking your older child to be your eyes for your younger child.  This causes tattling.  This starts out innocently enough when your children are younger, but it can quickly turn into your older children feeling he has the right to tell you every tiny transgression your younger child is up to.  This causes resentment and frustration for everyone.

Don’t takes sides or make favorites.  Although you would not make favorites intentionally, often times it can seem to your older children that you let your younger children get away with more.  Hold everyone to the same standard.  Also, avoid seeming to agree with one child more in an argument.  Instead, repeat each child’s point of view out loud.  “I see that Lilly feels she was playing with that toy before Joey.  Joey you feel like when Lilly put it down, it meant she was done with it.  How can we work this out so everyone is happy?”

Don’t just listen to the “loudest” of the group and assume everyone else is in the wrong. Parents frequently hear loud cries from another room and jump to the conclusion that the child that was yelling was wronged.  Find out the whole story before assuming this, because often children learn to use this to their advantage.

Parents would do well to take a deep breath and a step back in the midst of sibling rivalry, realizing that somewhere down the road these children who are at each other’s throats right now can eventually be best friends.  This is not in spite of the fighting they are doing now, but because of the fighting they are doing now.  Arguing can build character, cooperation, understanding, compromising skills and closeness if given the support and encouragement to help them work it out. The very best thing you can say to your children when they argue is, “I believe you are smart enough to work together and solve this problem.”

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