How to reduce sibling rivalry in your family

Child clinical psychologists and parental experts share their the top tips of coping with these family fallouts

Sibling rivalry

As a parent you will often feel like you're on a huge mission to keep the peace in your household and diffuse any conflicts occurring between your tots or teens.

Sibling rivalry occurs as long as a family exists - it's natural. Even with the people we love the most, we irritate each other. Sibling rivalry and family conflicts are inevitable.

Parent educators Joanna Faber and Julie King said, "The challenge is to help our children learn to resolve those conflicts in a way that respects the needs of everyone involved, rather than increasing the bad feelings.  The bright side is that as your children go through this process again and again (and again!) they'll be learning an important life skill."

Taking into account your children may be different ages, different genders and naturally have differing personalities, there are some ways to reduce the squabbles, bickering and temper tantrums in your household.

We spoke to child and family clinical psychologists and parental experts to find out the top tips of coping with sibling rivalry, how to manage the inevitable fights, and ways to balance your individual children's needs.

Sibling rivalry when a new baby is due

Expanding your family is such an exciting time - but it can sometimes be overshadowed by worried about how your first-born is going to adjust to your pregnancy and new bundle of joy.

Dr Lin Day, child development expert said, "A child, who is used to getting a certain amount of attention expects certain things to happen at certain times of the day. Suddenly, a new being arrives that takes up much of the family time, makes so much noise and demands so much attention."

She continued, "Adjustment to a new baby will depend on pre-planning and preparation. Ultimately, the child needs to know that he or she is still loved and wanted."

Here are some simple things you can do to make the transition as smooth as possible and reduce chances of sibling rivalry occurring before your new baby has arrived.

sibling rivalry

Child boy hugging and kissing stomach of pregnant mother / Credit: Getty

Breaking the news

There are ways of telling your child that he's going to get a new brother or sister so that the impact is gentle and sensitive. Wait until you have some quiet family time, at the weekend, for instance. It's also easier to explain about the new baby once you have a visible baby bump.

Show your child your baby scan picture and point out the baby's head, legs and arms. This will help them to understand that the baby is growing inside you. You could also give your child a countdown calendar, so he can mark the time off with a stickers when the baby is due to arrive.

Keep it real

Most children will accept that you have a baby in your 'tummy' quite readily at first, but then doubts set in. Your child may be wondering things but be unable to articulate them. How can a baby fit inside Mummy? How did it get there? How will it get out, and when?

To get your child used to the idea, and to help him understand that soon there'll be another member of the family to care for, try taking him shopping for a few new baby items and, where practical, let him choose. He'll love to feel that he's playing an important role in preparing for the baby.

In the run up to the birth, it's a good idea to involve your first-born in the preparations so that he feels part of it all. Could he help pack your hospital bag? Would he like to make a card for the baby? You may be able to gauge how he's really feeling by getting his ideas for welcoming the baby home.

Dr Lin suggests, "Encouraging older siblings to visit the new baby in hospital as soon as possible after the birth, putting the baby in the cot so parents can spend one-on-one time with them, and having some new toys on hand can help ease any anxiety or resentment about the new baby."

Girl using digital tablet and shouting at brother / Credit: Getty

Sibling rivalry between toddlers

There's a chance of sibling rivalry occurring in families if you have young children close in age. Your tots are subconsciously competing between themselves for your love, attention and care. Kate said, "Most brothers and sisters experience jealousy or competition, and this can turn into squabbles and bickering."

Read more: Child development stages: Ages 1-5 the early years

Toddlers are protective over their toys and games, and learning to assert their willpower, which they will attempt to do at every opportunity. So, if a younger sister or brother reaches for their siblings toy, the child may react aggressively and an argument is likely to ensue.

Don't get involved

In most cases, it's best not to get involved. While we aren't advising you to let a full on physical fight occur between your toddlers, siblings can learn to resolve issues on their own and between themselves.

Don't step in and diffuse the situation as soon as your toddlers start arguing. Let the situation pan out, and see if they can resolve their differences. If you continuously intervene to settle problems your toddlers will learn this pattern.

Kate explains, "Children who feel rescued will think they can get sway with more as they know they will be “saved” from future arguments." They will always rely on you to step in, and rescue the situation rather than solving the issue themselves.

As your toddlers grow older they will eventually learn how to resolve their differences through communication, compromising and negotiating with one another.

However, if the argument between your toddlers starts to get physical including biting, pinching, pushing or punching, it's necessary to step in. Separate the tots until they are calm and make it clear that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable.

Praise your toddlers for playing together

Praising your tots when they are playing together is a great way to promote harmony and reduce sibling rivalry.

Kate further explains, "Let them know you appreciate the effort they’re making when they’re getting along." For example, use phrases such as "You're such a good team helping clear the table" , or "You two created the tallest LEGO tower".

She continued, "Encourage turn taking. Taking turns in games teaches them about cooperation, as does reaching compromises over playing with a particular toy and then swapping over so their brother or sister has a turn."

Praising there positive actions together will encourage your little ones to continue their teamwork.

Don't expect your eldest child to be the 'responsible one'

You may often find yourself naturally siding with your youngest child, and expecting your eldest to "know better" when it comes to sibling arguments.

Kate said, "Toddlers are beginning to deal with the concept of fairness, so struggle to understand why siblings are treated differently and may feel like one child gets preferential treatment."

Twin sisters standing face to face / Credit: Getty

Teenage sibling rivalry

Sibling rivalry occurs amongst teens just as much as it occurs in our tots.

Kate said, " Teenagers, are developing a sense of individuality and independence, and might resent helping with household responsibilities, taking care of younger siblings, or even having to spend time together. All of these differences can influence the way kids fight with one another."

Don't minimise the problem

Teens don’t appreciate hearing, “Oh please, are you arguing over THAT again?  Can’t you just get along?"

Rather than minimising the problem, give your teens space to communicate their problems in an appropriate way. You could hold family meetings, or speak to both teens individually to show you are giving each side respect.

Parent educators Joanna Faber and Julie King, and coauthors of  How To Talk So LITTLE Kids Will Listen said, "To your teens, a conflict over whether to play country music or rap in their bedroom while studying is just as important as any grownup conflict that you may have with, say, a coworker at the office who is doing something that annoys you.

"It would be pretty irritating if your boss were to be dismissive of your feelings. "Oh please, are you complaining about THAT again? Just suck it up and do your work."

Foster equal treatment

Establish clear family rules to foster equal treatment between your teens and reduce sibling rivalry. This may include no name calling, no foul language and no shouting or door slamming.

Try to be even with the rules, especially if your teens are close in age. They will be very quick to notice any preferential treatment which will cause further squabbles.

Do not compare your children by saying, "Why can't you be more like your sister?" or "Your brother would never behave like that." Instead, respect that your teens are different and focus on their strengths.

Do not label your teens dependant on their personalities. For example, don't label one the "naughty one", the "rebellious one", or the "intelligent one". This with further lead to sibling rivalry between your teens.

Brainstorm with your kids how to resolve conflict

Rather than playing the blame game and working out which of your teenagers started argument, instead come up with practical ways to resolve the issue. Motivate your teens to come up with possible solutions to the issue at hand.

Joanna and Julie advise, "If your combatants appear to be at a stalemate, you might help them get started by writing down a few  ideas. (Is there a genre they both enjoy? Or do they have headphones?)  Of course it's best if you can give them some space and convey confidence that they will figure out a solution without their parent hanging over them."

Keep track of how your teens solve their conflict, to ensure one child is not dominating the other, or always getting his or her way in an argument.

Encourage both your teens to compromise so they both are happy with the end result. If your teenagers fail to compromise issue warnings and consequences for their behaviour.


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