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How to deal with sibling rivalry

By Nur Choudhury

Although many children will refer to their siblings as their best friends, it’s also not uncommon for siblings to have rivalry between them. It is actually quite normal for siblings to fight, argue, or dislike each other from time to time. This is especially true for older siblings who have to adjust to new arrivals. They experience a complete upheaval of their world and it can take time to adjust to. Moreover, kids have different needs and will sometimes compete for simple things like toys or more complex things like attention or validation.  However, a long-term negative sibling relationship can be detrimental to your children and your family.

A sibling relationship is often the longest relationship a person has in their lifetime. A strong sibling relationship can be incredibly important and empowering to have, especially as one gets older. Thus, it is important that we help it set off on the right foot. Studies also show that the sibling relationship provides children and adults with help, care, companionship, and support throughout their lives.

Here are some practical tips on how to encourage your children to get along and become lifelong friends.

1. Understand why your children fight

Children fight for a million different reasons. Jealousy, competition, frustration, annoyance. Often fights are not the symptom of a deep-seated issue, they’re just a normal part of life. It’s important for a parent to distinguish between normal fighting and an emerging relationship issue. Understanding why your children fight will help you make this distinction.

Differing needs: Children can sometimes fall out if their needs are not being met. This is because they can have different needs depending on their age and personalities. For example, toddlers are learning about ownership and will be frustrated about sharing. School aged children are beginning to understand fairness and may feel angry about a younger child receiving more or different levels of attention. Teenagers are becoming adults and learning about independence and so they rebel against boundaries and ground rules and may not appreciate looking after younger siblings.

The way to handle this is to help your toddler understand that sharing can be fun. However, if they don’t want to share certain things, this is also acceptable. Compromising is usually the best way forward in these scenarios. Similarly, as a parent you should ensure that all your children receive quality one to one time with you, this will be appreciated by them regardless of whether they express this need or not. It is also from the wisdom of parenting to adapt rules when necessary. If you see your teenage child is resenting having responsibility towards younger siblings, then find a way to strike a balance in this. Make sure that the level of responsibility is appropriate and it is not impeding their sense of independence.

Temperament is also a defining characteristic that will influence your relationship with your children, as well as their relationships with each other. They are, after all, individuals with different personalities and characteristics. An independent child who likes their own company may struggle with being followed around by their younger sibling. Or a child who takes pride in their work and crafts may not appreciate interruption or interference by their siblings. Some children are introverts and others extroverts, and all of this has a bearing on how they relate to each other.

If you can decipher your kid’s temperaments, you can facilitate boundaries to help them get on with each other. For example, a child who needs alone time can be given a private space for reading, while a child who loves noise and company can be encouraged to play where the rest of the family convene in the living room.

2.   What to do when they start fighting

It can be upsetting for parents to see their children in conflict with one another. It is natural to want to step in and help them resolve a fight but, unless someone is getting hurt, you should try to stay out of it. Children will learn to resolve their conflict on their own. If a parent constantly intervenes, siblings will begin to depend on parental intervention. Furthermore, one child may feel that the parent is always protecting their sibling over them, which can cause more problems.

Siblings can hope to have a lifelong relationship together and so they must learn how to cope with conflicts between themselves early on. This will help them maintain a successful and meaningful relationship as they grow older. Studies show that through conflict, children learn important skills such as how to negotiate, take on the perspective of others, and argue their own position. It’s important to allow your children the space to develop those skills independently.

There is much you can do without physically intervening. This includes teaching them how to disagree respectfully and without name calling. Helping them contain disagreements within boundaries will ensure things don’t get too out of hand. If you must intervene, don’t try to solve everything. Instead, try to help your children manage their conflict.

3. Encourage a positive, healthy, and long-lasting sibling relationship

Parents can greatly influence what a sibling relationship looks like. Remember that your children may not have complimentary personalities or interests, however, you can help remind them of their blood ties and the gift of each other.

There are many ways to encourage your children to recognize the special status of their sibling relationship. Encourage your children to share space and belongings. While maintaining respect for each other’s personal space, they can learn to appreciate that sharing can be fun for them both. Even if your house is big enough for separate rooms, sharing rooms for younger children can also help give them a sense of calm and security with each other.

Perhaps the most important point is to encourage them to develop a relationship that is independent of their parents. Don’t insist on always being part of a sibling activity or moment. Let your children talk or play privately without prying. As a parent you should take pride in their closeness and be grateful that the seeds you have been meticulously planting may finally be sprouting.

4. Modeling

If children see their parents argue and bicker constantly, the chances that they will attempt to resolve conflicts between themselves in a similar fashion. This type of imitation is not limited to a marital relationship, but rather they will also observe how you interact with your own siblings. How you as a parent manage your interpersonal relationships will impact how your child does, so keep this in mind when you feel frustrated with your partner, your brother or sister, or your parents.

5. Create more positive memories

Siblings who grow up to resent one another may do so for a variety of reasons. Many of those who reflect back on their childhoods may mention that they primarily remember the bad experiences, fights, conflict, and disagreements with their siblings.

To counter this parents must apply simple maths. You need help your children create more positive memories than negative ones, so when they reflect on their childhoods, they will remember more positive experiences. Thus, if you note that your children have had a few negative experiences with each other in a given period, then you need to create an environment that brings about more positive memories than this so they outnumber the negative ones. As parents, it may be more constructive to invest in facilitating joint experiences for your children, over material gifts. Whether this means days out together to the zoo, a safari, helping the homeless, fundraising for a cause, cooking together, visiting the grandparents, all of these will be shared positive experiences that your children will value in adulthood. If the cracks ever surface in their relationship later in life, reflecting on these positive memories will hopefully always bring them together again.

Summary

Siblings will undoubtedly fall out and disagree. They will compete for parental attention, and they will struggle over possessions. All of these are natural parts of growing up. As a parent, your job is not to prevent this from ever happening, but to ensure that your children’s individual needs are being met and that they are given the right tools and advice to deal with their disagreements in a responsible and mutually respectful way. You must help foster a positive relationship by facilitating happy memories for them that will work like a bank for them to tap into when things get tough. If the positive memories outweigh the negative, then this surplus will be what carries them through any obstacles or cracks that may surface in later life. While life and death are not in our hands, it is likely that we will one day leave behind our children, and leaving them behind with strong ties between them will be one of the greatest gifts we can give them.