There they are again, fighting and screaming over that same stuffed animal and the last slice of pizza. How many times have you had to play referee between them? It’s exhausting. You’re frustrated, overwhelmed and frankly, just plain tired of your kids’ constant squabbles. But will it last forever? And could sibling rivalry have long-term consequences on your children’s relationship with each other?
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Psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, offers some helpful tips to create a peaceful, cooperative home environment when you can’t help but wonder, Why can’t we all just get along?
Sibling rivalry describes the inevitable competition and animosity that occurs between siblings. This kind of relationship happens most often in siblings close in age, but it can also occur when larger age gaps are present, as well as between siblings who aren’t blood-related. Rather than a one-time dispute over who’s getting better grades or that highly coveted last piece of Halloween candy, sibling rivalry tends to flare up often, consistently and sometimes, without any known common denominator.
“A relationship with siblings is one of the earliest and long-lasting relationships people develop,” says Dr. Albers. “Siblings are a child’s first peer group where they learn critical social skills like how to share, how to manage conflict and how to communicate.”
The first step in managing family feuds is understanding their potential causes. Your kids probably aren’t fighting just because one toy is better or one piece of cake is larger. Instead, the majority of fights arise due to underlying causes related to birth order and family dynamics.
For firstborn children, their largest source of comfort, safety and admiration comes from their parents. But introduce another sibling, and they suddenly feel like they need to compete for your attention. This can be true even if you don’t make any intentional changes — because a sibling might perceive the slightest differences in how you talk, interact with and react to their sibling as potential threats to their own comfort and well-being.
“The feeling of competition is at the root of sibling rivalry,” explains Dr. Albers. “Not all competition is negative. It can make you work harder. But in sibling dynamics, it can become toxic and damaging when it is taken too far or fostered by parents.”
Differences in developmental stages and competing desires for your attention can lead to moments of jealousy or misunderstanding. When your kids are young, most of the causes for sibling rivalry, like age difference or temperament, are impossible to change. That makes sibling rivalry, unfortunately, an inevitable reality.
But if you make an intentional effort to foster cooperation, reduce favoritism and direct attention to the problems as they arise, you can help reduce the long-term effects of rivalry and the frequency with which these problems occur.
“All hope is not lost,” says Dr. Albers. “There is no way to stop the bickering forever, but there are many ways to minimize conflict and to maximize productive resolution.”
Rivalry can even affect your kids as they get older if they develop a poor sense of self-esteem and have difficulty maintaining friendships. In cases of older adults, behavioral therapy and identifying strategies for helpful coping mechanisms can help address aggression and conflict that can arise from strained relationships.
Sometimes, adults can develop sibling rivalry later on in life, too, even if they never had that kind of relationship earlier in their childhood. When this happens, it’s often a result of being unable to manage conflict in a proactive way or because of underlying mental health conditions like anxiety, depression or stress.
“Long-term sibling rivalry can wear on you emotionally and turn holidays and family get-togethers into unhappy and dreaded occasions,” notes Dr. Albers. “A therapist can help you identify how to cope with this ongoing relationship and assist in identifying boundaries, communication styles, trigger buttons and how to let things go.”
When you’re overwhelmed with bickering children, it can be difficult to isolate the real reason behind arguments and head off any lingering animosity. But it’s possible to redirect conflicts toward more positive solutions by making small, everyday changes. Here are some strategies that can help prevent sibling rivalry and ways to stop it in its tracks:
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.
Avoid comparing your children, favoring one over the other, or encouraging competition between them. Instead, create opportunities for cooperation and compromise by empowering them to play together, explore their individual curiosities and share time with you.
Don’t forget to set a good example, too. How parents interact with one another sets an example for how children should interact. If your children see that you or your partner slam doors or have loud arguments, they’re more likely to do the same and see it as a proper way of handling their issues.
“Role modeling is one of the most powerful and effective ways to teach your children how to get along with their siblings,” says Dr. Albers. “Show your children how to share by dividing up the last piece of pie or working together on a chore. Intentionally say sorry when you have a conflict with your significant other and let them hear you saying those words to each other.”
Children are less likely to fight if they feel you appreciate each of them as an individual. Start by avoiding labels and let each child know that they’re special to you by spending time with them individually. If one child loves to run around outside, grab your sneakers and soak up the sunshine with them. If the other child likes to spend time reading their favorite book, snuggle up next to them. Then, make sure that everyone has the space and time they need to be alone.
This means you should also avoid over-generalizing your child’s characteristics and personality traits. For example, saying one child is “the athletic one” and another is “the book-smart child” implies their value is dependent on performance in certain areas. Translation: Your athletic child may not feel as smart or supportive, and your book-smart child may not feel as physically fit — and these observations may foster animosity between them because of their labeled differences. Instead, empower your children for who they are as individuals without using labels that attach fault or guilt.
“Rather than label children with one word or characteristic, list many of their accomplishments, skills and attributes,” encourages Dr. Albers. “Instead of saying, ‘Jane is the artistic one,’ say, ‘Jane is exceptionally talented at art, is caring and works hard at school.’ This avoids pigeonholing a child into a certain role and pitting one child against the other.”
Family dinners, playing board games, spending time at the park and doing activities are great ways for children to bond and share positive memories together. These moments give children less incentive to pick fights with each other and give them an opportunity to spend more time with you.
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.
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. A good way to get at the root cause of conflict is to sit everyone down together, talk about how everyone involved is feeling and find helpful ways to manage that conflict better in the future. The focus on acknowledging those feelings in the moment is pulled straight out of the gentle parenting rulebook.
“Check in with your child on how the conflict is making them feel,” says Dr. Albers. “Understanding their perspective can make your child feel cared for and taken seriously. Even if you can’t solve the problem, feeling heard can go a long way for soothing their emotions.”
Some questions you can ask to help this conversation along include:
During a fight, most children are frustrated and emotional. It can certainly cause a lot of anxiety for parents to parse out all the details, but sometimes, taking the time to just listen to your children and respect their feelings can have a lot of impact.
Although their emotions are not an excuse for negative or aggressive behavior, children will be more likely to cooperate if they feel they’re being heard. If your child starts to hit, reiterate that violence isn’t tolerated and isn’t acceptable. Tell them that using their words is the only way to solve a problem and you’ll be there to hear them out.
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.
If a spat between siblings results in the need for discipline, avoid making the conversation public. This can shame a child in front of their siblings, creating greater animosity between them. This is the time to teach a lesson — not make an announcement.
Gather the family and talk to give everybody a chance to say what they want to say. 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.
“Having very clear family rules is key,” says Dr. Albers. “This allows you to point to the rule rather than choose which child is ‘right.’”
When each new conflict ends, it feels like you’ve won the battle until the next war comes along. But sibling rivalries don’t always last forever, as long as you’re taking the time and creating the space to address each conflict head-on.
The more conscious you are about parenting, the easier it will be to navigate these battles between siblings. In truth, your kids are ever vigilant and always watching. By leading through example, taking time out to address any lingering animosity and fostering togetherness, your kids will learn to lean on each other and support one another over time.
“Nothing makes a parent happier than harmony in their family, particularly between their children,” says Dr. Albers. “The good news is many families can work through the rivalry and turn conflict into deep connection.”