Are you constantly playing referee between your children? Are their arguments repetitive and without clear resolution? You may be dealing with sibling rivalry.
True, all siblings argue and fuss to some degree, but there’s a difference between that and true sibling rivalry.
“It’s more than competitiveness; it occurs often and continues without the resolution you have with ‘normal’ fighting between siblings,” explains Karen Fattorosi, Ph.D., a licensed clinical social worker who has been practicing in Ocala since 2005 and specializes in marriage and family therapy.Parents can inadvertently foster sibling rivalry by paying more attention to one child than another. When one child is more self-sufficient, parents often devote more time and attention to the child who is less capable, which can create resentment and increased competitiveness.
“A lot of sibling rivalry is trying to meet the need for parental time and attention. Kids will even do things they know parents don’t want them to do just to try and get that time and attention,” says Fattorosi.
“Underlying many cases of sibling rivalry is the belief that there’s not enough to go around and you have to work hard to get your fair share,” she notes.
Depending on their individual temperaments and personalities, one child will fight hard for their “fair share,” while another will give up but still view their sibling as a rival for parental time and attention.
The daughter who wants to spend time with her dad can end up resenting her brother for the hours father and son spend in the workshop together. She may not want to learn how to use a table saw (or she might!), but she still craves one-on-one time with her dad.
An older child can feel weighted down with the responsibility of helping care for younger kids, while one child may feel pressure to live up to the standards set by an overachieving sibling.
Children As Individuals
In Fattorosi’s experience, gender doesn’t usually play as big a role as age and personality. She’s worked with more cases of sibling rivalry in families where the children are close in age and are doing similar things (sports/school activities, etc.) at the same time.
“When you put two children who are inherently competitive together, you will have more conflict,” says Fattorosi. “You can’t control personality, but you can work with it. When you have competitive children, you as parents have to work harder to model empathy and negotiation skills. Allowing competition within reasonable confines is important.
“Parents teach kids how to support each other. If parents encourage and support each other and have empathy for each other, children will learn from this. “
Changes In Family Dynamics
You know your children better than anyone else. Pay attention and notice when a child is acting out or just acting differently than normal. This is usually a sign that you need to come closer and work with the child to see what’s going on.
A perfect example of a potentially troubling time is when a new baby joins the family. The older child already has an established relationship with their parents and any other siblings. It’s totally normal to feel that this new baby is imposing himself or herself into the family unit. It takes time, especially for young children, to realize what a new baby means and that it’s a permanent situation.
“Children need attention, and this is a challenge for new parents of a second baby,” Fattorosi acknowledges. “Helping the first child participate in welcoming the new baby and giving the older child continued attention helps that child learn he can share time and attention. Parents need to show there’s enough love to go around. One way to do this is to make the first child feel they are special just for being older and able to do things the baby can’t.”
Advice For Parents
Parents can unwittingly fuel sibling rivalry by the way they respond to their children’s struggles.
For example, young children cannot clearly verbalize their thoughts and frustrations when a sibling teases them or snatches away a favorite toy. Unless you help them learn how to handle these situations—and model such actions yourselves—negative patterns can develop that over time turn into sibling rivalry.
It’s a parent’s responsibility to teach their children how to interact with respect and how to share. Losing your temper and yelling, “I’m sick of you two fighting. You better start sharing or else!” doesn’t teach them anything positive.
Sharing is a learned skill, and parents need to teach their children this ability without requiring that they give up too much, which can cause resentment.
“When needed, step in and separate them. Sit down with them sitting across from each other and ask each child what they propose to do about the situation,” advises Fattorosi. “Resist the urge to personalize. Saying, ‘Why can’t you two just get along?’ isn’t helpful. Talk about the problem at hand, not what the kids are doing wrong. Ask them how they’re going to solve it. You’ll be surprised what they come up with. Kids often aren’t given the chance to solve their own problems, but they’ve been listening to you and know what you want.
“Parents will know when kids need instruction and coaching on how to compromise, but encourage them to figure it out on their own,” urges Fattorosi.
She recommends setting up some foundational family rules that children should be taught from the earliest age. Some basic rules could include:
Ask for what you want.
- Treat each other with respect.
- Be fair.
- No hitting or hurting each other.
At the same time, children must learn that there are consequences if they don’t follow the rules.
“Parents have authority, which is something children don’t have, and parents can use this authority to enforce rules,” says Fattorosi, adding that consistency is crucial. Kids need to know ahead of time what will happen if they do something they’ve been told not to do.
And those consequences should not be up for debate, she adds.
“If you are debating discipline with your kids, they will win. Don’t give up your parental authority. Once parents start hollering, they become just like kids, and they’ll never win. The most effective parenting can be done with a few words, such as, ‘Put that away’ and ‘Sit down now.’ Many parents confuse nurturing with discipline,” she explains. “You can’t combine the two.”
When the discipline is done, then you can nurture and give them emotional support, but doing this immediately when they’ve misbehaved actually rewards poor behavior.
Seeking Professional Help
Many parents don’t seek professional help until they’ve tried everything they know to do, but there is still dysfunction in the family.
“Typically, they bring in the child(ren) and want them to change, but it’s not that easy,” says Fattorosi. “They’ve already told the child(ren) countless times to stop what they’re doing; they don’t need a therapist to say the same thing. What a therapist can do is find out what a child may be distressed about that is showing up as sibling rivalry and help find ways for each child to get the time and attention they need.”
Underlying issues may be loss, worry about a parent or family member, or changes in family dynamics. A trained professional can help uncover the real reasons behind why a child is upset. It’s essential to discover these issues in order to successfully implement a plan to deal with sibling rivalry.
“Children have few ways to let people know they are distressed,” notes Fattorosi. “Sibling rivalry can be one of the ways.”
Growing As A Family
- Help avoid rivalry by taking steps early on to encourage healthy sibling relationships:
- Treat children as individuals, respecting their unique needs.
- Don’t compare children to each other.
- Set firm ground rules for what is allowed and what is unacceptable behavior.
- Be consistent with consequences for failure to follow rules.
- Model kindness, empathy, cheer leading and cooperation.
- Avoid teasing and sarcasm, even in jest.
- Praise good behavior.
- Let kids work out differences on their own as much as possible.
- When you need to intervene, don’t take sides.
- Spend quality time with each child individually on a regular basis.
- Come up with a plan to allow kids to take turns doing “coveted” things (choosing a game to play or show to watch, etc.).
- Set aside time when each family member has a chance to share their feelings and talk about what is happening in their life—family dinners together are a good starting place for this.