Top tips for reducing sibling rivalry 

Firstly I am a parent – just like you – and my children squabble.  As a doctor I have witnessed thousands of siblings and I’ve heard the following lines very frequently…

“Sibling rivalry… what can be done about it?  I just give up,” said resignedly.

“I try so hard to be fair…” said concernedly with a confused expression.

“They’ll be good friends when they are all grown up.” said hopefully.

Sibling rivalry can be a persistent problem – even in adulthood!  Especially so I believe, because we tend to have smaller families than a couple of generations ago. I hasten to add that there can also be advantages in having smaller families but I think that sibling rivalry is a very real and inevitable issue.

It’s a commonplace theme from Shakespeare’s plays to sitcoms like ‘Everybody Loves Raymond” “the Simpsons” or “Frasier”. In reality though, it is not as humorous as is portrayed.

It is even in the animal world. Baby Black Eagles – the strongest one kills the weaker ones by turfing them out of the nest. Or the toddler elephant in the Melbourne Zoo who, annoyed at all the attention the baby elephant was getting, deliberately tripped him up so that the baby elephant fell down.

In small children, the right hemisphere develops before the left hemisphere. This means they are sensitive to emotions but may not be developed enough to express them verbally. If pregnant, your child views your growing tummy (the absence of a lap to cuddle in) with ambivalence. You have to convince them that sharing you won’t mean diluting you.

Starting out sensitively is important when a new baby is brought home from hospital.  Parents are often asked how the older child is reacting.

“Oh he loves his baby sister.” But it is in fact a complex blend of protectiveness – (he knows he should love his baby sister) and self preservation. In fact the ambivalence is best understood if we were told, ‘’Darling, I’m going to bring home a new wife – but I love you still…”

It takes time and patience for the child to fully grasp the meaning of adjusting to a new sibling.

Now I hear some of you saying, “Well that is good advice for those starting out on this journey – but what about those of us who have older children – is it too late?”

It is never too late in my opinion.

Just the other evening we were watching two young myna birds very noisily squabbling over something. Along came Mum, she just escalated the situation by squawking even louder in an attempt to be heard. The messages I took from that interaction helped formulate my:

Six Top Tips for Reducing Sibling Rivalry

  1. Don’t raise your voice. The children are probably just squabbling and sometimes just a directive for time apart is required – always try to think of a solitary activity.
  2. “Jessica, Luke – enough – I’m not interested in what you’re fighting about at the moment. It has to stop. Jess you go and read for half an hour in my room. Luke you go to your room and listen to a CD. Then you can come out and solve this dispute without arguing.” My children usually go off in a huff but the time apart can make all the difference to calming things down. Try not to take sides because you often have only half the story, for instance Jessica explodes but it is often the more placid Luke who niggles her.
  3. Ask yourself, “Are they tired, bored or hungry?” Those three things are enough to affect any of us in the way we view the world. Set about righting them and you will probably have restored peace.
  4. Try not to directly compare siblings. Even something as simple as, “Why can’t you eat your veges like your sister?” encourages the resentment to well up and it makes it easier to fight with the sister at a later date.
  5. You don’t have to treat your children the same way. You have to recognise and celebrate their differences. This will reduce the need to compete. Every child is unique and special.
  6. Make some rules and encourage children to express their feelings in words. This teaches them good conflict resolution skills which they will need for later life. I believe no verbal violence or taunting is permitted. By that I mean, “You are a stupid little baby,” is not allowed. Instead, encourage the child to paraphrase their feelings, “I feel mad when you do that.” No physical violence is tolerated. “Sam – stop that he is your little brother and you hurt him when you hit him! What is it that you wanted to say?”
  7. It is exceedingly difficult but try and stay calm. I learnt this in the car. I was driving along and the children were at it. I issued a “Don’t fight kids just get along.” Of course they continued. I took a deep breath, pulled over and turned up the CD player. They ceased quite quickly. “Mum why are you stopped for?”
    “I can’t drive if you are making a racket and bickering in the back seat – I’ll have an accident so I stopped driving until you are ready.”  I was surprised by the apology that followed. Now just a threat is enough to curb any quarrelling.

Relationships between siblings last longer than probably any other. Our relationship with our siblings occurs earlier than most friendships and all being well will outlive the relationship we have with our parents. Through their adversarial roles our children will hopefully learn how to handle human relationships. They learn how to manage competition without hostile aggression and how to resolve conflicts through negotiation and compromise.

Then one day we will get to be onlookers to the next generations squabbles with the humorous detachment of a grandparent.

Julia Driscoll is a general practitioner, Mother and author of “My Story”.  It is a personalised, interactive book for expecting families to minimise sibling rivalry.

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