It can be heart-wrenching to watch your children at each other’s throats, never seeming to get along. Meal times, car rides and family gatherings can erupt into chaotic wars that not only damage sibling relationships day by day, but also wreak havoc on the family dynamic.
Every parent wishes for their children to show affection and love toward each other but in reality, sibling fights seem inevitable, with lingering rivalry being the norm. So the question is, what are the causes and psychological roots of sibling rivalry, and how can parents diffuse the situation before it escalates?
Here are 6 common causes of sibling rivalry and 5 effective ways to resolve a sibling conflict.
What causes sibling rivalry?
1. Unfair parenting
Parents often struggle to treat their children fairly, because each child has different needs. Parents can reasonably justify that one child should have a musical instrument, for example, on the grounds that he or she not only shows an interest in learning, but also demonstrates potential and talent. But to their other children, it will seem unfair if they do not get to have what their sibling has.
It is important for parents to balance their actions as parents so one child does not feel left behind or less favoured, compared to their siblings.
2. Comparison & competition
If you have more than one child, you will inevitably see differences between them in terms of their development, whether physical or cognitive. Every child’s rates of development vary in response to their particular strengths and weaknesses. But parents can tend to put too much focus on areas of slower development in their children, which can lead them to compare one child unfavourably to a sibling who shows faster achievement against a particular developmental milestone.
The problem is, if parents express their concerns based on their anxieties, and compare their children with the implication that the slower one has a problem and does not meet their expectations, they naturally exacerbate competitiveness in their children and sow the seeds of jealousy.
Once your children become convinced that you prefer one of them to the other, it can ignite a long-term rivalry that lasts even into their adulthood. It is one of the biggest mistakes a parent can make, and it needs to be corrected—the sooner the better.
3. Age gap & birth order
Older kids, in particular, struggle when it comes to welcoming their younger siblings. It is not easy to adapt to the sudden change in their environment, when they have to share their parent’s attention and time with a new sibling. It is important for parents to make their first child understand—before the arrival of a new sibling—that they are welcoming a new family member who will be with them for life. It is especially important to remind them that you have enough love for everyone, and that you will be there for them. Your older child should understand that having a sibling is a gain rather than a loss.
4. Personality & social skills
Each child’s temperament and personality is unique, and each will react differently to their siblings. Some children have less tolerance for conflict than others, and they might show extreme emotions which can quickly escalate a conflict.
Help your child learn a few coping techniques that they can use when they are emotionally distressed, such as breathing and counting, or walking away until their anger cools. Studies show that the best way to defuse one’s anger is through physical distance and the passage of time, to allow the initial surge of rage to dissipate. Distracting oneself from angry emotion by walking away or borrowing time allows you to forget the instance, by thinking about something else and engaging in other tasks for a while.
For children who struggle to interact with people in general due to a lack of social skills, there is a higher chance that they will also face difficulties in their relationships with their siblings. If your child shows signs of a lack of basic social skills such as the ability to express their opinion, read others’ emotions or understand social cues, work with your child to help them understand and practice the lacking social skill.
For example, if your child struggles to express their thoughts verbally, model a few appropriate phrases they can say in each situation. Or, if your child cannot show sympathy, explain what emotions or pain the other person might be feeling, to help your child see the other person’s perspective.
5. Attention-seeking behaviour & jealousy
Have you experienced the situation of having spent an equal amount of time with each of your kids, where one child is content but another acts out as soon as you walk away to catch up with work or to do something around the house? If you happen to find yourself encountering this type of situation frequently, you might have to investigate whether the acting-out child feels like they are getting enough time with you. If the child says you spend more time with other siblings than with him or her—however untrue that might be—focus on how your child feels.
Some children feel more need for interaction with their parents than others, and that is just the child’s unique need. Instead of explaining fairness and rules, try to increase the effectiveness of your one-on-one time with that child by building fun memories, and then see whether the frequency of acting out to seek attention reduces. It is also important to pay particular attention to any potential bias you might be showing in your praise and words of affirmation toward your children.
6. Personal needs
According to Maslow’s hierarchy, in which human needs are divided into five main sections, starting with basic physiological needs like food and shelter forming the base of the pyramid, followed by safety and security, then a sense of belonging and love, then the need for esteem and a sense of identity, and finally self-actualization at the top of the pyramid. Although parents might assume each child’s needs have been met by an abundance in one section, a deficit in another part of the pyramid can be easy to overlook a.
Your child might feel the need for more personal space and alone time, though he or she might have to share a room with one or more siblings. Try to find a way to meet that need as best you can—even if it means using screens or curtains to create a separate space.
In another example, your child might feel the need to belong by feeling included and connected—this is often true of the youngest, having often experienced being left out of the games and activities of their older siblings. Give this child some responsibility around the house, to experience a sense of achievement and accomplishment, such as taking care of a pet or some houseplants. Try to find games and activities that all of your kids can play together, regardless of age.
Have a conversation with each of your children and find out whether their needs are being met, and consider how you might fill in the gaps to satisfy any sense of lack they might be experiencing.
Some children feel more need for interaction with their parents than others, and that is just the child’s unique need.
5 ways to resolve sibling rivalry to help your kids build life-long friendships
1. Understand each child’s personality
When it comes to figuring out your child’s troubles, first understand his or her personality. Everyone is born with a different nature, and that makes every one of us unique. Don’t expect your short-tempered child to act like your easy-going child. But with your help from an early age, even a strong-willed child can learn how to cope during distressing moments. Instead of demanding that they calm down and be more understanding, and trying to reinforce with scolding or punishment, provide them with tools to use when they feel frustrated and anxious, such as walking away for a few minutes or distracting themselves with counting, or finding as many colors around them as they can.
2. Meet their basic needs
Make sure your child feels their needs are met, whether it is having enough personal space, or having a storage box to keep their belongings private and out of others’ reach. According to general consensus, the average child’s room should be about 120 square feet, allowing a minimum of 40 square feet for play.
If your child feels he or she has not had enough time with you, try increasing one-on-one time with him or her. Although not all parents can meet all their children’s needs in our hectic lifestyles, it is crucial to communicate with children about it. Let your children know you acknowledge their needs and you are committed to filling that void as much as you possibly can—and show your remorse for whatever limitations you have.
3. Look at your child as an individual, not defined by their age and rank in the household
Sometimes parents can make the mistake of tailoring their behaviour toward each child according to their age and birth order.
For example, they might say to their older child, “You’re old enough to play alone, but your sister is still a baby and needs more care”. Although your child might be old enough to handle many independent tasks, it is still important for them to spend time with you doing age-appropriate activities such as going to movies, playing sports or shopping together. Don’t brush your older children aside by prioritizing younger children’s needs.
On the other side of the coin, don’t give priority to the older child’s needs and brush off the younger one by saying, “You’re still too young—you have to wait”. Instead, find an age-appropriate compromise for the younger child, so he or she does not feel left out.
4. Never compare
No matter how much one child might lack compared to other children, never compare them. If one child lacks in some areas or is slower to catch up, all it means is this child needs extra time and help in those areas. Although the child falls behind in certain skills, his or her talents might lie in completely different areas, and it is your job as a parent to encourage him or her to discover them.
Accept your children’s differences early on and focus on the help you can give to each to improve on their weaknesses while boosting their strengths. Never encourage your children to compete with each other by saying, “Who is going to get outside first?” or “Who’s going to be the first one ready for bed?” Although these things can be said without any intended implication, encouraging your children to compete against each other can stoke negative sentiments of jealousy or unfairness.
5. Help improve lacking social skills
If your child shows a lack of social skills, don’t let yourself brush it off as simply part of their personality—help them improve. For example, you can teach them to observe others by asking questions about what your child sees and getting them to describe it to you.
You can also help your child verbalize their thoughts and emotions by modelling possible expressions, or by reading their emotions in a given situation and providing cues before a conflict escalates. For example, you can say, “I see you’re upset that your sister took the toy you were playing with. Can you say, “I’m still playing with that; can you play with it when I’m done?”
Identifying lacking social skills in your children and helping them practice will allow them to improve gradually. It might be a slow and painstaking process, but with constant help, your child can not only improve their interactions with their siblings but also become more socially adept outside the home with others.
Sibling rivalry can easily be dismissed as inevitable friction between your children’s personalities, but the underlying causes can be as much on the parents’ part as the children’s. Parental bias and unfair comparison of one child to another can trigger jealousy and anger between siblings that can last a lifetime if it is never resolved. Another thing to keep in mind is that children’s individual personalities and lack of social skills can also cause conflict between siblings and give rise to competition.
To solve sibling rivalry it is important to identify and address your children’s needs through conversation and fulfill those needs in a noticeable way, whether by spending more time with a child or providing more personal space. Remember to look at each child as a unique individual instead of comparing them with your other children, and avoid deciding your child’s needs based purely on their age and birth order, but rather find out what they are missing through continuous dialogue.
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