Written by: Dr Mark Toh, Consultant Clinical Psychologist
Sibling rivalry is a conflict between brothers and sisters that go beyond simple disagreements between two or more parties because of individual differences and different opinions on a subject. Starting from as early as the birth of the second child, sibling rivalry usually involves jealousy and competition between siblings which can show up as fighting on a frequent or routine basis. It is usually frustrating and stressful for parents who do not understand human psychology or the basis behind relationship conflicts. They are often at a loss as to how to respond to the ongoing conflict between their children.
Since sibling rivalry often shows up from early childhood, the following forms of sibling rivalry behaviour are often displayed in response to each other:
- stealing things,
- challenging a belief,
- simply looking at each other (with the intent of intimidation)
- breaking something that belongs to the other one,
- throwing something at the other one,
- hiding something that is important to the other person.
Reasons for sibling rivalry:
- Children may feel their relationship with their parents is threatened by the arrival of a new baby. They were the centre’ of their parents’ attention until the new baby arrived. Now the new arrival is seen as a competitor for the parent’s attention.
- Children feel they are getting unequal amounts of a parent’s attention, discipline, and responsiveness. Their sense of value is measured based on their evaluation of their parent’s attention to them. So they compete to be favoured.
- Children who struggle to differentiate and individuate as unique individuals do not yet recognize their personal power except through conflict and competition with each other. It shows up as a power struggle.
- Children who are hungry, bored or tired are more likely to become frustrated and start fights.
- Children may not know positive ways to get attention for a sibling or how to start playful activities, so they pick fights instead.
- Children’s developmental stages affect how mature they are and how well they can share a parent’s attention and get along with one another. The less mature sibling may be more likely to want their parents’ attention as an all-or-nothing need focused on them and not their siblings. This immaturity is expressed as an either-or view instead of being able to adopt the view of both-and (ie., both being important). As such, their level of emotional maturity is showing in their attempts to resolve their attempts to negotiate with each other to resolve their conflict.
- Each child feels the need to compete with each other to define who they are as an individual. As they discover who they are, they may uncover their own talents, activities, and interests. Sibling rivalry shows up as their struggle to separate, differentiate or individuate from their siblings while feeling inferior or superior along the way in contrast to their sibling.
- Stress in children’s lives can shorten their fuses, and decrease their ability to tolerate frustration, leading to more conflict.
- Stress in the parents’ lives can decrease the amount of time and attention parents can give the children and increase sibling rivalry.
- Family dynamics play a role. For example, one child may remind a parent of a relative who was particularly difficult, and this resentment may subconsciously be projected on their child to influence how the parent treats that child so that the child is regarded as, eg. the ‘black sheep’ or ‘the problem child’ vs. the idealized. The problem-child view can be accepted by the other siblings from the parents and then be regarded accordingly. Similarly, if a parent simply has a favourite child among their children, maybe because the child is regarded as more socially, academically or physically attractive among the children, this can foster jealousy, resentment and competition between the children.
- How parents treat their kids and react to conflict can make a big difference in how well siblings get along. Children often fight more in families where parents think aggression and fighting between siblings are normal and an acceptable way to resolve conflicts.
- Not having time to share regular, enjoyable family time together (like family meals) can increase the chances of children engaging in conflict. The absence of an emotional bond between the children can increase the likelihood of conflict.
Other factors that influence sibling rivalry:
- Birth order: for example, it is common that the oldest and youngest child often receive the most attention while the middle children often feel overlooked (eg. the oldest being celebrated by the parents or extended family as the first-born; the youngest being celebrated as the ‘baby’ of the family).
- Spacing between the children: when spaced further apart, there is usually less competition; when spaced more closely, there tends to be more.
- Temperamental differences: temperamentally easy babies tend to be liked more while more difficult ones are experienced as more annoying.
- If parents choose as a favourite or respond differently to their children, this can also spur more jealousy and competition or intensify competition between them.
- Gender: in some families, a child of one sex is preferred over the other.
- Physical influences: children who share a room may argue more due to being in constant close proximity with each other; a child who received more attention due to an illness or physical disability may leave siblings feeling neglected or ignored.
- Parenting style or approach: Children with very permissive and overly harsh parents tend to fight more –permissive parents may not operate with adequate rules so children feel they have to settle their conflicts by themselves without guidance; overly harsh parents who are strict or harsh tend to model aggression to their children to get their needs met. The best outcomes show up with parents who have acquired what has been described as the authoritative approach.
- Age of the children: as children mature and reach later developmental stages, sibling rivalry tends to decrease.
- Transitional times: sibling rivalry tends to intensify when there are changes in the family, eg. the birth of a new baby, when a baby becomes mobile, when a sibling goes off to school, when a sibling leaves the family for college or marriage, if there is a divorce or a remarriage.
How to respond as parents?
With this knowledge already outlined, parents can lookout for ways to parent more intentionally. Firstly, they have to desire for their children to get along or be positive or loving with each other in the family. Interventions can then be planned for. They can be preventative or when conflicts occur, facilitate to address the identified need or help resolve the conflict between the children. For example, understanding how the birth order could raise the possibility of jealousy between siblings, or the prospect of one child being favoured over another, the importance for each child to be valued and appreciated as unique is an important practice. Also, parents need to watch how they manage their own conflicts as their children view them as role models for life learning. At the same time, they can remain optimistic when they realize that some sibling rivalry is inevitable and that as children mature and learn ways to handle conflicts, the rivalry will usually subside. The younger they are, the more parents are called on to be a referee. Probably the most help needed to be directive with the children is 4 years or younger. Here are some useful strategies to help children manage their conflicts:
- Communicate the basic message that includes:
- Acknowledgement that they both want their way by arguing with each other rather than to cooperate.
- Hitting each other, calling each other names or bullying is not going to work.
- They both have needs in the situation and they have to find out how they can both be acknowledged and met but without fighting.
- Find out how to do this by themselves of you will decide on their behalf in a way they may not like.
- Establish rules for managing the conflict.
Having rules in place is a way of communicating your family values. So the parent needs to decide what behaviours are important and what they wish to enforce. This is an effective preventive strategy.
- Handling conflicts and anger
“No hitting, use words to say what you are upset about.”
- Family Values/morals
“We treat each other with respect.”
- Parents’ role when there is conflict
“If I get involved, I will determine the outcome.”
- Hurt or property is damaged
“Whoever caused the hurt or damage must make amends.”
- Personal possessions and boundaries
“We don’t take someone else’s things without asking first.”
“No complaining to get someone in trouble; you can “tell” to get someone out of trouble.” For example, a child telling his mother that his sibling just entered his room without permission.
- Handling conflicts and anger
“Work it out between you two or if I get involved, neither of you might like what I decide.”
- Conflict Resolution
Sibling rivalry highlights the need for children to be taught the skill of conflict resolution. When they are young, the parent will have to walk them through the whole process after each conflict. In time, they will be able to resolve their conflicts with their siblings and others on their own. In summary, this process involves each child learning to express his point of view and listening to the other child’s point of view, generating a number of possible solutions that work for each of them, choosing one solution, and trying it. It encourages listening for and the expression of feelings to understand each other to discern what they both need. In this practice, it fosters the development of the sense of mutuality, and promotes the practice of collaboration and cooperation.
This skill helps your children to navigate current and future relationships with their peers. It is useful throughout their life. It can equip them to be emotionally and relationally competent and capable as they see that they can come up with solutions to problems in relationships without fighting.
But in order to engage in a problem exploration process, the children must be calm enough to dialogue. Time out may be called until both are calm enough to proceed.
The parent also has to model for their children when it comes to handling conflict. The lesson is obviously more powerful when the parents practise this themselves.
Use “fair fight” rules yourself.
- Use cool off times to calm down first; then re-enter the situation.
- Give second chances and opportunities to make amends.
- Listening well: seek first to understand, then to be understood. In order to seek to understand, we must first learn to listen (Stephen Covey’s 5th habit of highly effective people).
- Attitudes and additional strategies that help to encourage health sibling relationships:
- Expect many episodes of sibling rivalry.
- Treat your children as the unique individuals they are.
- Do not show favouritism.
- Stay calm and objective.
- Recognizing the need is important in discussing ‘fairness.’
- Don’t look for someone to blame or punish. Take personal responsibility to communicate well with each other.
- Don’t get in long discussions about what happened (it can act as a reward for their arguments)
- Establish basic relational rules: encourage communication, listening and understanding of feelings with empathy, taking turns.
- Reinforce and remind them of a list of basic rules: “You can express your feelings to communicate clearly without having to be hurtful;” ”Use your words and not your fists;” “Speak to them in the way you would like to be spoken to.”
- Encourage the children to solve their problems: be creative to find out “What would work for you both?”
- Be aware of developmental stages: very young children find it hard to share as they need to have a sense of possession before they can share.
- Don’t referee a fight if you don’t know what happened.
- Do not allow your children to pit one parent against the other. Discuss privately and directly between parents if they disagree with a parenting decision made by the other.
- Do not bemoan to the children that they “fight all the time” (or they will live up to this pronouncement).
- Reward them verbally for their efforts at collaboration to promote a loving or positive connection between themselves. Valuing them verbally models for them to value each other. This also promotes both their self-esteem.
These attitudes are commonly practised by parents who embrace an authoritative approach to parenting. But when the conflicts get out of control and do not stop, get professional help. The relational skills children learn in childhood is what they practice with as adults. The ability to be effective in relationships is crucial to personal success later when children grow up to marry, have families of their own or at work.
Coping with Sibling Rivalry —https://centerforparentingeducation.org/library-of-articles/sibling-rivalry/coping-sibling-rivalry/
Sibling Rivalry —https://www.mottchildren.org/posts/your-child/sibling-rivalry#:~:text=Sibling%20rivalry%20is%20the%20jealousy,frustrating%20and%20stressful%20to%20parents.