Understanding Sibling Rivalry

One of the biggest challenges of parenthood is dealing with sibling rivalry and having to mediate arguments without taking sides or showing favouritism. Facing cries of “You always take his side,” or “She’s got more than me”, or even “You love/spoil them more than me,” feel undeserved and are upsetting.

Every parent wants to treat their children fairly and equally, but this is often difficult when you’re busy and want the situation resolved as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, parents must take care to make shrewd judgements. From Cain and Abel to Romulus and Remus, history is peppered with examples of families in conflict due to sibling rivalry.

There are many reasons why siblings go head-to-head. Jealousy and competition are the two biggest causes, but personalities and individuality, compounded by familiarity and the dynamic of relationships, mean that declarations of war are never far away, especially during the difficult teenage years.

Attention Every child wants their parents’ attention. If, rightly or wrongly, one child feels another is getting lavished with more, then resentment will build. It’s only a matter of time before that resentment comes out in one form or another.

Evolving Needs As children grow, their needs, desires and personalities evolve too. From bickering over a favourite toy as a toddler, to fighting for independence and privacy as a teenager, conflicting stages of growth can result in flare-ups along the way.

Temperament and personality Life would be boring if everyone were the same. It’s during the early years that children find their personality, explore comfort zones and create their own identity. One child may seem laidback while another is moody or boisterous. Two children with opposite temperaments are guaranteed to clash from time to time.

Parental behaviour If you and your partner argue, there’s a good chance your children will copy your tactics. That’s why it’s always a good idea to avoid verbal fights in front of the children, and to lay down guidelines for arguing that lead by example. Teach them how to debate, compromise and resolve problems positively.

Solutions to sibling rivalry Getting involved right at the outset isn’t ideal. Your children need to learn how to resolve differences by themselves. If things get particularly heated, or turn physical, it’s time to step in.

Avoid taking sides and try not to apportion blame – it takes two to initiate and maintain conflict. In fact, it’s a good idea to say as little as possible until you’ve separated the two siblings. Talk to them separately and privately, so you can address their concerns without the other butting in.

Aim to set up a win-win situation where they both get something out of settling the argument and come to terms. If they can shake hands and agree to disagree, that’s already an excellent starting point for reconciliation – especially if there’s a treat in store to enjoy together, such as a day out or a trip to the cinema.

Create an environment that gives your children their own space and freedom to be themselves, while at the same time fostering collaboration and encouraging them to look after one another.

Sibling rivalry does serve a function. Much in the same way that a litter of puppies will play fight to learn the skills they’ll need for later life, sibling rivalry helps to prepare children for the adult world. As they learn to cope with disputes, they gain important skills. They learn how to compromise, negotiate, value the perspective of others and control aggressive behaviour.

As we all know, beyond the safe confines of the home, the world is a competitive arena. It’s a competition for work, a nice home and even love. Which may be why, in the majority of cases, sibling rivalry fades once they leave home to build their own lives. Then, when siblings meet up again, they can look back and laugh at what might, at the time, have been serious upsets during their early family life.

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