How to tame sibling rivalry

One exasperated mom test drives strategies for dealing with sibling rivalry.

Illustration Credit: Laura Perez

Good luck to me every time I nip downstairs to check on the laundry or dash upstairs to check my email. Within seconds, my absence is followed by a siren-like wail.

That would be my three-year-old daughter. She’s perfected this shriek just as her six-year-old brother has honed his smacks and other torments.

Yup, my two kids fight. It began in the early weeks of young Hazel’s life. When the grandparents had retreated, my husband got busy with work and I was left alone most days to care for the kids, I’d feed Hazel while Leo would stand beside my chair and scream. It’s never gotten better. I often tell other parents about my kids’ ongoing conflicts, and I get looks of concerned shock. “Really? My eldest just loves the baby! They never fight.”

But experts reassure me that those parents may be sugar-coating the truth. “This issue is a common one,” says Jacqueline Green, a parenting educator in Edson, Alta. Adele Faber, an American parenting educator and the co-author of Siblings Without Rivalry, adds that members of the same family have been fighting through history. “Just open up a Bible. See what Cain did to Abel; see what Joseph’s brothers did to him. Sibling rivalry is an old misery.”

But there may be a good side to the rows. “I think that siblings give children one of their first opportunities to try some of the skills they’re going to need with their co-workers, with their spouses, with everyone as they age,” says Green.

That is, if they can turn their nasty fights into calm conflicts they can resolve. My quest is to help my kids do that. So I spoke to experts and test drove some strategies for preventing and calming conflict. Read on for what I found out.

Pre-empting combat

While it may seem like it, conflict doesn’t just spontaneously erupt — usually there is a spark. So it’s a good idea to try to turn down the heat.

Strategy: Give them attention Green thinks carving out one-on-one time can prevent many sibling conflicts. She suggests that you nab 15 minutes’ uninterrupted time a day per child (use a timer if you have to) for an activity of his choosing.

Kids need space too, not just time, says Ellen Mortlock, parent education coordinator for the Peterborough (Ont.) Family Resource Centre. Allotting each child a corner of a bedroom or a basket of sacred toys may lessen the stress of sharing a house.

Verdict In my nutty household, with my husband working long hours, one-on-one time is impossible on a daily basis. And the last time I took my son to a movie, he was so scared by the film he declared the date “didn’t count.” Instead, my son and I are getting creative: We hold hands on the way to school whenever my daughter’s not with us (which means no stroller). My kids don’t seem to need private space for their toys just yet, but I like the idea of getting them separate special bins for their treasures.

Strategy: Never compare When we say things like “Your brother finished his dinner and cleared his plate — why can’t you?” we inadvertently set siblings up to resent each other. “Cut out the comparisons, even the favourable ones,” says Faber. The kid with the complimented table manners is also aware he’s in a contest and may feel the pressure to stay perfect.

When your child complains of unfair treatment, skip the debate and simply ask him what he wants. A special outing? One-on-one storytime? Meanwhile, forget promising your kids you’ll treat them exactly equal. It’s impossible. “Tell them: ‘You’ll get what you need when you need it. It’s not going to be equal across the board,’” says Judy Arnall, a Calgary parenting educator and the author of Discipline Without Distress.

Verdict Focusing on needs, not comparisons, worked for me. One time, my son asked for a longer hug after complaining of unfairness. Another day, he told me he wanted more comfort, after scrapes and spills, like I give his more sensitive sister.

Strategy: Family meetings Some conflicts can drag on, particularly with older kids who share clothes, friends, bathrooms and computers. Regular meetings help everyone feel they have a voice, and lead to things like household rules being posted on the fridge. “Kids can enjoy contributing, and the experience can have such a lasting effect on them,” says Faber.

Verdict As I was growing up, family meetings were never pleasant, so we’ve only done this a few times with our young clan. For now, talking out problems in the moment is working for us. I think I’ll try meetings again when the kids are older: When everyone has input, they’re all bound to get along better.

Wading into battle

Sometimes all your peacemaking evaporates in the heat of a struggle for the remote. Here’s what to do:

Strategy: Go in calm Faber says it’s so tempting to shout out, “Stop it, you two” when there’s a fight going on. Resist. “It’s like saying to Niagara Falls: ‘Stop it!’” She suggests affirming what you are witnessing: “Boy, you two seem so angry at each other.” And then listen.

If an argument is minor and your kids have learned some negotiating skills, you can stay out of it unless things get rough or out of control. And if they are already in full swing? Before playing referee, Green suggests, remind yourself that getting along is hard for kids and they’re not fighting merely to annoy you. “Start with the end in mind,” she says. Enter the fight having a plan for calming the kids and helping them find a solution.

Pull kids apart if they’re about to come to blows, separate them by a few feet or even a room if needed, and have them count to 10 or watch a quick video or listen to a song. Once all is chilled out, you can implement some of the other strategies in this article to work out the problem.

Verdict Having thought about sibling rivalry so much of late, I understand better how tough it is to get along. That’s helping me stay focused and relaxed. “Everyone seems very upset in here” has become a favourite line. But when we’re late for school or something’s burning on the stove — or that time my son got utterly hysterical and would not chill no matter what I did — I personally prefer a trusty “Quit it, you two!”

Strategy: Focus on the “victim” Since many sibling conflicts are about drawing attention, experts suggest making a fuss over the injured victim. Punishing a hitter with a long lecture and a time out actually gives him what he wants: attention. Also, Green says, punishing an aggressor automatically can mean you don’t get the backstory — the other sibling may have provoked the attack.

Verdict Since I was beginning to suspect my daughter was setting up my son to strike, coddling her injuries didn’t work: It rewards her sneaky behaviour. Plus, if I dwell on her, it fuels Leo’s fear that I favour Hazel. But I’m happy to nix the time outs and lectures. That gives us all more time and energy to get to the root of what’s going on.

Strategy: Get at the feelings Too often, we focus on the fight, and not the emotions that caused it. “Feelings that are banished don’t vanish, they come out in the next fight,” says Faber. She suggests letting both children tell you their side of the conflict and express their feelings, one at a time without interrupting each other. Listen without judgment and repeat back each child’s viewpoint.

For kids who have trouble describing what they feel, particularly young ones, Arnall uses a technique called mirroring. She talks to kids about how awful it must feel to argue and how frustrated they must feel over both wanting the same toy. She suggests the feeling and they agree or disagree (if they disagree, suggest a different feeling until you get it right). Getting empathy for what they’re going through works quickly on kids. “It’s really powerful. It does something literally in our brains to calm us down,” says Arnall.

Verdict My kids were amazingly insightful through this technique, and I heard some very elaborate backstories. The back-and-forthing gets confusing, but I just let them keep talking, in turn, until they’re done. After lots of chatting, I found my kids were able to let go of petty problems. My son also began talking about his real feelings and, in private, told me: “I wish you’d never borned her.” We hugged and he was playing happily with his sister five minutes later. But this process takes plenty of time, and we’ve had a few cold and burnt dinners as a result.

Strategy: Let them figure it out We parents usually step into an argument and decree from on high who gets to choose the movie, or on what terms the borrowed article of clothing gets returned. But once kids are calm and have told their side of the tale, you can tell them it’s now time to figure out the solution on their own.

Younger children might need suggestions, Arnall says, but the final decision should fall to them. “Let them decide if they’re going to say no” when encouraging kids to share or yield a turn, she says. “When you do that, they’re more likely to say yes.”

Verdict My duelling duo is able to negotiate quite well. Once, when they couldn’t decide who was wrong or right, they agreed to both say sorry at the exact same time. Now, when they wake up on Saturday mornings, they immediately start bargaining for their choice in cartoon channels.

Strategy: Pull out some mediation tricks For minor tussles over sharing a toy or divvying up the last of the banana bread, or when kids can’t work out a solution on their own (see above), Arnall suggests using some sharing techniques that feel fair. Toss a coin to make a decision. Have the person who goes first take a shorter turn. Let one kid divide the precious object and the other choose her piece. Children should OK the fairness trick before you use it, and get to pick heads or tails on their own. “Let them see the process; you want them to work it out with you,” says Arnall.

Verdict I used Arnall’s idea of “get it first or get it longer” to deal with a coveted comic book: One got it until lunchtime; the other had it the rest of the day (by then, the book was forgotten, of course). These tricks are great when you don’t have a lot of time, or when kids just can’t hash out a solution without help. If you use them enough, older kids should remember these techniques and use them on their own.

Why kids fight

Siblings don’t bicker or duke it out because they despise one another (you hope!). Most of the time, the rivalries have underlying causes, including:

Boredom and stress Feeling yucky? Take a swing at your brother. That’s why hungry, bored children often have tiffs in the back seat of the car, and why those having a rough time at school pick a fight when they get home. “Under stress, kids will take it out on an easy target,” says Calgary parenting educator Judy Arnall.

Wanting attention Kids need to know their parents care, and they often measure that via attention. This is particularly true for older siblings who remember life without a little brother or sister. “It starts with fear: fear of losing what up until now has been yours alone. All the hugs and attention, all the love,” says Faber.

Inequality “Kids have a really good sense of fairness,” says Arnall. If they sense they’re not being treated equitably, resentment can grow, and with it, conflict.

Circumstances Birth order, age gap, gender and personality play a huge role in how much siblings fight. For example, “some boys are naturally more competitive and see a younger sibling as a threat rather than someone they can nurture and learn from,” says parenting educator Jacqueline Green. Meanwhile, issues such as one child having a medical problem or special needs, or events in the family like death or divorce, can impact sibling relationships and cause resentment, blame or stress.

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