How to Balance Sibling Rivalry

“He touched me!” “She won’t let me put my leg on the chair!” “He took my pancake!” All kids argue and fight. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, sibling rivalry is normal. Frustrating, but normal.

Despite being normal, it can become quite heated, creating family discord, hurt feelings and resentments that can carry over into adulthood. Parents can become locked up in disagreement over how to handle situations, and kids can begin to work one parent against the other.

As parents, it is our job to teach our children how to get along with others—starting with each other. This involves teaching them to respect other’s opinions and property, resolve conflicts, and show empathy.

According to Michele Borba, Ed.D., educator, parenting expert and author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions, the “peak for sibling jealousy is during the ages of five to eleven.” So take heart if your school-aged children are in conflict. It will get better!

Here are some ideas for turning down the heat on sibling squabbles—and gaining a little family peace.

According to Borba, some of the issues that can contribute to sibling rivalry include:

  • Your kids’ temperaments, personalities, abilities, priorities and styles are very different.
  • Siblings have different parents; you are a blended family.
  • Siblings are not given the opportunity to share feelings of discontent, so animosity builds.
  • Siblings are not allowed to explore their individual interests or have privacy; they have no alone time to develop relationships.
  • Financial difficulties, marital conflicts, illness or trauma lead to strained family dynamics.
  • Siblings lack vocabulary, skills or maturity to solve problems or share concerns.
  • One sibling has special needs or is overly aggressive or impulsive.

By giving thought to these precursors of sibling rivalry, you can decide if changes need to be made. For instance, if your kids have very different temperaments, you can encourage empathy by explaining that each person is different and has different needs. “Alex, you like to play with Legos inside, but Thomas likes to ride bikes outside. Can you come to a compromise instead of arguing about what to play?”

Borba also suggests that parents stay alert to how their own behavior may contribute to sibling rivalry:

  • Are your children imitating your behavior? How do you handle conflicts with other adults in the home and elsewhere?
  • Never compare. Don’t say, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?”
  • Avoid labeling. Unless a nickname is respectful or builds up a child, don’t use it.
  • Encourage teamwork. Stop contests that force siblings to compete against each other such as, “Who can get dressed the fastest?” “Who can brush their teeth best this week?” Instead of having them challenge one another, have them challenge the clock.
  • Nurture unique strengths and differences.
  • Give a little privacy. If siblings spend too much time together (and it’s not their choice), find ways to separate them or give each a bit of his or her own space.
  • Acknowledge cooperation. When you notice your children sharing, playing cooperatively or trying to resolve issues peacefully, let them know that you are proud of their behavior.
  • Schedule alone time with each child on a regular basis.

Be especially mindful if you realize that tension with your spouse or significant other is affecting your children. What are they hearing? What are they seeing? You are their role model on resolving conflict. They will copy what they see you do.

Finally, if bickering and fighting continue to disrupt the household, call a family meeting and establish some family rules.

Here are Borba’s Five Simple House Rules to Curb Sibling Bickering:

1. No yelling. If talks get heated, anyone can make a “time-out” hand sign indicating that he needs to cool down.

2. No taking someone else’s belongings without asking.

3. No hurtful behaviors: hitting, name-calling, and hurtful behaviors are never allowed and will result in a consequence (time out for younger child, loss of privilege for older.)

4. No involvement without evidence. Parents should let their children resolve their own conflicts as much as possible; however, if you do get involved, there should be evidence one way or another. If your kids seek your help with no evidence, suggest they use rock-paper-scissors to end the squabble.

5. No tattling. This works wonders in curbing sibling resentment with younger kids. “Unless you tell me something to keep your brother out of trouble or from being hurt, I won’t listen.”

Additional resources to help you deal with sibling rivalry include:

Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Beyond Sibling Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Become Cooperative, Caring and Compassionate, by Peter Goldenthal

101 Activities for Siblings Who Squabble: Projects and Games to Entertain and Keep the Peace, by Linda Williams Aber

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