How to cope with sibling rivalry?

Long holidays are lovely (and yes, for the sake of our sanity, we are considering everything that’s happening a very long holiday because our family is together 24/7). Still, in the meantime, it’s a reminder of the importance of the siblings being alone without the other. One month into the lockdown, the intensity of quarrels between my two boys reached its culmination. This made me feel tense and upset because I had to continually check whether my kids were trying to tear off each other’s faces over a toy. Which they, by the way, have both identical, but somehow the little brothers’ toys are better. Go figure. 

Up until mid-April, I became more and more aware that it could not go on. It’s not okay, even though I remember fighting with my baby sister all the time. Frequent children’s fights disturb and affect us all, first and foremost, the children themselves. I get angry when I can’t cook dinner in peace or go to the loo because those few seconds or minutes are when dispute resolution becomes physical. My husband is also angry if he can’t read a book or listen to music in peace, and at the end of the day, it turns out that everyone is upset with each other. 

I decided I didn’t want to live in constant tension because of sibling rivalry. It is not always THAT bad, but obviously, there is a limit of rubbing shoulders with each other. Every household member simply needs privacy. 

I started researching this topic, turning to my trusty medium – audiobooks. Here’s what I listened to: 

  • Dr. Laura Markham “Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings”;
  • Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish “Siblings Without Rivalry” (They also have an excellent book called “How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk”);
  • David Leads “How to Prevent and Manage Sibling Rivalry Among Brothers.”

In these books, I found references to many studies which I have also read to understand the subject. Everyone unanimously confirms that disputes between children are normal and even necessary. Arguments also have a positive effect on the child’s personality and ability to build relationships later in life*. Thus, disputes are good, but sometimes children need help resolving conflicts. And children learn from us.

It has also been shown that children aged 3 to 7 argue 3.5 times per hour, but younger children – even more often. Kids aged 2 to 4 can argue 6.3 times per hour, which means at least one quarrel every 10 minutes! Learning this made me heave from a sigh of relief. My family is normal! We are normal even though it seems that our friends’ kids are fighting way less often. And this is my weak spot because there are people around me who are unfamiliar with this problem – arguing siblings. But here we come to the eternal mantra of all parents: don’t compare your life to others’! Do not compare your children – even though they’ve come from the same parents, they each have their own personalities; Do not compare your children with other people’s children. And simply I can’t hope to be understood by parents who haven’t experienced sibling rivalry I see literally every day. It’s loud, intense, and exhausting. And oh so frequent. 

This is probably one of those taboo topics, simply because many parents are ashamed because of it. And it makes us, as parents, ask ourselves the dreaded question: what are we doing wrong? What are we doing wrong because other parents are not struggling with this? My husband and I are not arguing, so we are definitely not setting a bad example for our kids. 

Fortunately, the audiobooks, all the articles, and research papers I read, all gave me some peace of mind and helped to find solutions. And finally, I understand. 

This is yet another classic example of ‘children are a mirror of their parents.’ And I wish I could deny it. Because I don’t argue as they do. I’m not kicking, biting, and hitting my husband. However, it forced me to look deeper. How do I respond to my kids’ fights? I try very hard to do it calmly, to not interfere when it is not needed. At the same time, I cannot deny that there are times when I do it in a firm and loud voice to resolve disputes, and, perhaps, it’s not the best way. Especially when I’m tired, and it has been the sixth fight in the past hour; when I have already tried distracting them for the tenth time and tried to change the activity or tried separating them by sending them to their rooms. 

Unfortunately, as it turns out, this is not the best example of conflict resolution. The kids, they learn nothing from it. They repeat the same thing – angrily shout at their sibling, push them away. Although there are also positive examples taken by my eldest in resolving disputes with his baby brother. For instance, lending his toys (although temporarily), distracting the youngest by focusing on another activity, getting involved in their games, etc., there is still room to grow.

When dealing with sibling rivalry, it is essential to understand:

  1. First and foremost, we do not have to control children, and we do not have to resolve their conflicts. The parents are like coaches teaching their children to resolve disputes by example.
  2. There is no need to shame a child for their behavior. For example, if they hit their sibling. Don’t tell them they’re bad; your child has reasons for acting the way they do, and it’s usually associated with emotions, possibly jealousy. It is important to talk about these feelings and emotions with the child and not to shame them for feeling so.
  3. We need to talk to our children and show empathy. No matter how old your child is, they need to be talked to. If they can’t tell you why the conflict has arisen, you can help. For example, by saying, “I saw you hitting your brother. You’re probably angry about something. I understand, and you have a right to be angry.” And children will organically learn empathy through this. 
  4. Alternatives must be sought. Only when we have accepted the child’s emotions that have caused the conflict, which most often is anger, sadness, or jealousy, can we look for alternative solutions for beating or shouting at the sibling. Of course, an example works best. I have also observed this in practice. For example, my children like to draw together. The little one is very eager to take his brother’s markers, but his brother is angry because the little one doesn’t put caps on. Instead of forcibly pulling the felt-tip pen out of his little brother’s hands, we try to teach him to put on those caps. Gradually he understands it. If the caps are not put on, the brother will not share his markers. I try to show the older son that he, as an elder, can teach the little one a great deal. I tell him that if he sets an example for his brother, the baby boy could learn to protect his older brother’s things. Of course, my oldest is just a child – he’s almost seven, and the little one’s three – and all the responsibility for the conflict cannot lie on his shoulders. He needs to see that I also tell all this to the little one.
  5. You must set an example. This, of course, doesn’t always turn out perfect. There are times when they don’t want to cooperate. And I need to accept it and always show empathy. For example, I say, “I understand you’re angry with your brother, but he really wanted to play Lego with you. He loves you!” Often after I such a thing, they flash the biggest smile. We’re slowly learning, but there are times when we break down, both I and the children. And I realize I can’t blame them. They learn to resolve their differences by observing how my husband and I perceive and resolve their disputes. We, too, are just human beings, and there are times when we get angry. But I try very hard to work with my emotions, and I feel that it gives the best results. The calmer I will react, the calmer they do, too.
  6. You need one on one time with each childNo matter how painful it is to realize, children do not fight over toys; they compete for their parents’ attention. Failure to share toys is just a consequence. Having one on one with one of the parents makes the child realize that they matter; that they’re not just a combo of two or more kids. It makes them see that they’re valuable enough for a parent to free up some time to go somewhere away with the child, just the two of them. Every couple (or single parent) in the family should find time to spend alone with each of their kids. For our family, what I did was, I put all the family’s plans on paper. And I paid special attention to when each of us will be able to spend time with each other. Mom with dad, son with mom, son with dad, brother with brother, etc. And we’ve already been doing this for a while now, and I swear I see improvements! What happens if it happens regularly? I will see it in the long run. 
  7. Don’t compare your kids. I reckon you already know this. Unfortunately, parents often promote competition between children without even realizing it. Who will wake up first? Who will fall asleep first? Who will finish dinner first? But, you seem, there’s already competition between them, and it is natural. You don’t need to create any extra competitiveness there. Every child must be allowed to become aware of their values ​​and talents. Also, one of my family’s internal goals is to teach the children to rejoice in each other’s success. Teach them to praise each other (to my delight, sometimes I hear Danny praise Robin’s drawings). Do everything you can to keep the competition between them at its natural and healthy level, and don’t put extra pressure on them. It’s not easy, and maybe it seems unnecessary for someone to think about it as much as I do, but I believe it is important.

Remember, parents are the ones who raise the child, but brothers and sisters are the ones who make up the child because it is with the siblings that the child spends the most time together. Not with parents, not with daycare buddies, but with their siblings. **


* Social Understanding and Social Lives: From Toddlerhood Through to the Transition to School (Essays in Developmental Psychology). Available on Amazon

** The New Science of Siblings, By Jeffrey Kluger. Available here