Sibling rivalry manifests itself in almost every home. It’s one of the leading complaints I hear from parents in my classes. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you may be contributing to the problem. The good news is there are tons of tools to keep in your parenting toolbelt that will help create harmony in your home. So, why do siblings fight? The number one reason children fight is for their parents’ attention; no surprise there. Other common reasons include boredom, competition, difference and/or challenges in the way each child expresses themselves and their feelings, and dethronement – when the first born child is quickly pushed off their throne by a new sibling (I think my older sister still wishes I would go back to where I came from). What can you do? Let’s look at 10 tools you can use to help minimize and even prevent sibling rivalry:
- Stay out of it! Your children are competing for your attention, and even negative attention is still attention in their eyes. "I don’t care who started it; stop fighting," "Why are you always beating up your brother?" and other phrases like these place blame and add fuel to the fire. Feelings aren’t being truly addressed or validated, and no real solution has been determined. It is best to remove yourself from the situation (as long as you aren’t worried about their physical safety) and give them the tools (see number two) so they can solve their own fights.
- Teach win-win negotiation and other problem solving skills. First, create a neutral ground, a "Peace Table" to discuss all issues. Once the children have calmed down, sit them at your designated Peace Table (you could use a kitchen table, reading nook, etc.) and have each person tell the other sibling how they feel and what they want. Then ask them how they can make it work so each person gets what they want. We call this win-win negotiation. You can have each child brainstorm ideas on paper, then you can read the ideas aloud and the children can determine the best solution for them through a process of elimination.
- Don’t compare your children. "Why can’t you be more like your sister?" "Your brother doesn’t have a problem listening!" Siblings are different, often times even opposites. Don’t expect your children to behave and react similarly. When you compare the siblings you are showing favoritism to one child which will absolutely add competition and feelings of inadequacy to the mix; these are sure-fire ways to increase rivalry.
- Validate their feelings – "I hate my brother!" These can be harsh words, and of course you want to protect your children’s feelings, so we quickly defend this with "No you don’t." The truth is, in that moment, the child might be having feelings of extreme anger and hate. The best thing you can do is allow your child to express him or herself to you privately and then validate his or her feelings. "I can understand you are really upset with your brother right now." Often times children just need to feel understood. Encouraging them to keep a private journal is another healthy way to express their feelings. Not allowing them to express how they feel will most likely result in a bottled-up blowout.
- Model the behavior you want to see in your children. Even as we get older we still have disagreements with our friends, spouses, family members and coworkers. It’s a great idea to bring an issue home that you are having with a co-worker and ask for your children’s help to brainstorm ideas to create peace. Report back to your children on how their ideas worked! This helps create a great sense of team and unity within the family.
- Check in with each child regularly. We are all guilty of overbooking ourselves from time to time. Having one genuine, uninterrupted interaction with each child every day will make a world of difference in your relationship. This means no phone, no email, no texting, nada. Those few precious moments could help prevent a sibling battle and will help you stay connected to each of your babes.
- Time is on your side. Using impartial tools like a timer can help keep the peace when it comes to sharing toys, computer time, etc. Let the children decide on a length of time and set the kitchen timer. This way you stay out of it and the children know what to expect.
- Say less, say nothing. Avoid the temptation to try and solve their problems. For younger children fighting over a toy, it’s best to use no words and simply hold out your hand. Once the toy is given to you, thank them and let them know you will be in the other room with the toy once they decide how to work it out.
- Change the environment. A breath of fresh air can do wonders. Tell the children to take a walk around the block or run around in the backyard. If they refuse, model the self-calming technique and take the walk yourself to re-center.
- Make-ups. Even if we have the best of intentions, we can still make mistakes. That is part of life. Your children might be getting along wonderfully for a few weeks, and then one day (because they are overly tired or stressed) they initiate a fight with their sibling. Instead of forcing the other one to immediately say "sorry" to their sibling, allow for some cool down time. Then brainstorm ideas with your child on how they can make it up to their sibling. Maybe they ride bikes together, play a game of cards; something to repair the relationship.
The silver lining? Sibling rivalry can be beneficial to your children if handled properly. Given the right tools, your children can learn to use win-win negotiation and practice their problem solving skills. If your children learn and practice these skills when they’re young, they can grow up to be valued team players in any office or group environment. So hang in there moms and dads, a change might not happen overnight, but using these tools will help everyone build stronger relationships that can create harmony in your home.
Stephanie Lovejoy has been working with children and families for more than a decade. She owns Kinship: Navigation through Parenthood, a family resource offering parent education and infant massage classes, guidance and support to all who seek harmony in their homes.