Sibling rivalry happens everywhere, from the animal kingdom to the Bible — and in families across the world.
At home, you may feel more like a referee than a parent when your children squabble, says Sigmund Norr, MD, a Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital community pediatrician.
But there is help if you find yourself wondering, “Why can’t we all just get along?”
Rivalry is inevitable but manageable
The first step in making family feuds more manageable is understanding their causes, says Dr. Norr. Your kids don’t fight just because one toy is better or one piece of cake is bigger. Instead, the majority of fights arise due to underlying causes such as birth order and family dynamics.
Competing desires for your attention and differences in developmental stages can lead to moments of jealousy or misunderstanding. Most of these causes, like age difference or temperament, are impossible to change. That makes sibling rivalry, unfortunately, inevitable.
However, all hope is not lost! There is no way to stop the bickering forever, but there are many ways to minimize conflict and to maximize productive resolution. As Dr. Norr says, “None of us are superheroes.” But there are small changes we can make. Here are the top 10 tips for conflict prevention and intervention among children:
5 Tips for preventing sibling rivalry
There are five ways to create a family dynamic in which sibling rivalry is a rarity and not the norm, says Dr. Norr:
- Stay calm, quiet and in control. Pay attention to what your kids are doing so you can intervene before a situation begins or escalates. Keep your cool, and your kids will learn to do the same.
- Create a cooperative environment. Avoid comparing your children, favoring one over the other or encouraging competition between them. Instead, create opportunities for cooperation and compromise. And don’t forget to set a good example. Dr. Norr explains, “How parents interact with one another sets an example for how their children should interact.”
- Celebrate individuality. Children are less likely to fight if they feel you appreciate each of them as an individual. Dr. Norr says that avoiding “labels and pigeonholing” is a good way to start. Let each child know that he or she is special to you by spending time with them individually. Then make sure that everyone has the space and time they need to be alone.
- Plan fun family time. Family dinners, vacations and activities are a great way for children to bond and share positive memories together. These moments give children less incentive to pick fights with each other.
- Treat kids fairly — not equally. For parents, fairness is essential. But fair doesn’t always mean equal. Punishments and rewards should be tailored to your children’s individual needs. For example, you don’t have to give two children the same toy. Instead, give them different toys suited to their ages and interests. That kind of fairness will go a long way.
5 tips for intervening in sibling feuds
Fights are inevitable. What do you do when they occur? Dr. Norr suggests five ways to handle disagreements in a positive way:
- Remember it takes two to tangle. Rarely will you witness the events leading up to the fight. Instead of playing the blame game, focus on each child’s role in the situation.
- Listen. During a fight, most children are frustrated and emotional. Listen to your children and respect their feelings. Although their emotions are not an excuse for negative or aggressive behavior, children will be more likely to cooperate if they feel they are being heard.
- Give children problem-solving tools. In order to avoid future disputes, use conflict as an opportunity to provide your children with tools for solving future problems. Demonstrate how they might compromise, share or approach a similar situation in a more positive, appropriate way.
- Make punishments private. If a spat between siblings results in the need for punishment, avoid making the conversation public. This can shame a child in front of his or her siblings, creating greater animosity between them. This is the time to teach a lesson — not make an announcement.
- Have a family meeting. Gather the family and talk, to give “everybody a chance to say what they want to say,” says Dr. Norr. It’s also an opportunity to establish house rules that family members can agree to follow. Hang these rules in a public space, like the kitchen, to remind everyone of their commitment to being a happy, healthy family.