How to Manage Sibling Rivalry: A Ten-Tip Special

by Lily Hwang

“Why can’t you guys just learn to get along with each other???”

It always ends with either one of them crying or screaming out of anger. Sibling rivalry is very common in families with more than one child and those endless battles can drive many parents crazy. When they argue with each other, how should you as the parent manage the situation? Many parents wonder, “Whose side do I take? Should I just walk away from the fight? What could possibly be the cause? How can I end this argument?” Are you feeling lost and overwhelmed? Here are ten tips to help you navigate through sibling rivalry and bring your family back together.

1. Don’t intervene right away.

Have you heard your children arguing over something in their room and feel the urge to walk in and intervene right away? It might be a good idea to be patient and give them some time to resolve the issue on their own. Learning to yield and negotiate is an important lesson that must be learned in life and it would be even better if they can learn that on their own without the intervention of an adult. Keep an eye on the situation in case the argument escalates into a bigger fight. But you may not always have to be the referee for every little situation.

2. Don’t jump to conclusions.

Parents often attempt to immediately end battles between siblings by jumping to conclusions and minimizing conflicts. They may say something like, “I’m sure he didn’t mean to do that on purpose. It was a mistake. Come on, now, say ‘Sorry’ and make up with each other.” Yes, we know how much you want to avoid listening to the unnecessary, energy-draining arguments of your children. However, if you just focus on having them reconcile without fully listening to them, they may experience more anger, frustration, and even hatred piling up without an outlet. So don’t assume anything and don’t jump to conclusions by yourself!

3. Listen to both sides of the story.

If you do need to step in, rather than assuming the possible cause of the conflict, give each child a chance to tell their side of the story. When you have two or more kids telling you different things, it’s difficult to get the gist of the story. Pull them aside from each other and take them to a quiet room. Ask them to explain what happened and how that made them feel. By empathizing with their feelings, they may feel validated and appreciate the fact that their negative emotions at least are being understood. However, it’s important to teach them right from wrong. After they finish, if you feel that their actions or words were inappropriate or the cause of the conflict, make sure to explain their wrongdoings. You could say something like, “I understand that you got upset because your sister took your toy. That is upsetting! However, it’s still not right to curse at her or push her down.”

4. Teach children to use “I” statements to express how they feel.

When kids don’t know how to verbally express their emotions, they may throw a tantrum by screaming, crying, kicking, hitting, and whining. This is common with younger children who have more limited vocabulary and communication skills. Also, rather than focusing on their own emotions and behaviors, children tend to blame each other, creating the potential for unhealthy relationships between the siblings. It might be a good idea to use emotion charts to teach different feelings to your children and encourage them to use “I” statements to express their personal reaction to the situation or conflict. For example, when they are upset, you may teach them to say something like, “I am angry because it seems as though you are only listening to _____ (sister/brother) right now. I also want to tell you what happened!”

5. Schedule family bonding time.

Plan a fun family activity event once or twice a month to spend time together and build positive connections between siblings. Some examples of family activities can include Family Movie Night, Game Night, Picnic, Cooking/Baking Together, Camping, and so much more! The list is only limited by your imagination! In order to get siblings closer to each other, you have to get them to spend good, quality time together. Doing these fun activities as a whole family can break the ice and teach them to appreciate each other’s presence in their lives.

6. Spend quality time with each child.

While family/sibling time is important, spending quality alone time with each child is equally important. Designate part of a day that is solely for you and one child (e.g. the last Friday of the month for child #1, the first Monday of the month for child #2, etc.). Not everyone likes to watch movies or play games. Celebrate their individuality by asking them to choose an activity they would like to do with you. While spending time with your child, give them your undivided attention and express how much you love them. If sibling rivalry arises from their unwillingness to share your love and attention, spending quality time with each child can reassure them about your affection towards them.

7. Avoid “comparing”.

Comparing your children to each other can be one of the most common causes of sibling rivalry. When parents say things like, “Your sister always gets over a 90 on her tests. Why can’t you be like her?” it can add fuel to the fire. When parents compare their children, it can lead to shame, anger, jealousy, and frustration. These feelings can be negatively reflected in their behavior toward their siblings. Instead of comparing, praise each child for their unique characteristics and strengths. This way, they can continue to develop their own strengths rather than feeling inferior to their brothers and sisters.

8. Avoid “Favoring”.

“Favoring” is another word that should be deleted from parents’ dictionaries if you want to avoid sibling rivalry. Remember that one student in your class who was the teacher’s pet and got away with a lot of things? We all have experienced feeling annoyed and irritated by this unfair treatment and hating that one student for no reason. Favoring often triggers unnecessary rivalry between siblings as well. Instead of making just one of your children feel special, give equal love to all of your children and express how much you love each one of them. Learning that they don’t have to fight for your attention should hopefully improve their negative behaviors.

9. Teach children to appreciate each other.

Promote the idea of team spirit and teach your children to be each other’s supporters. Wouldn’t it be great for them to have a brother or sister who’s always got their back? Have them engage in team-building activities or games that require them to work together to accomplish a shared goal. Through these tasks, older siblings may feel a sense of responsibility to protect and take care of their younger siblings and the younger ones will learn to depend on older siblings for help and support.

10. Establish “sibling agreements”.

Have your children come up with a Sibling Agreement that lists rules and guidelines for specific situations (e.g. things to do when: 1- having an argument, 2- getting upset and angry, 3- making decisions together). For example, if one child always needs to get something done first or in their way, assign odd/even dates to each child and allow that child to have priority in making decisions on their designated date. Instead of telling them what to do, have them discuss and draft an agreement that everyone agrees upon. Explain to them that these rules must be followed by everyone in the family and that the main purpose is to make everyone feel they are treated in an equal and fair manner.

Managing sibling rivalry is a slow process. It seems that many fights between siblings are forms of continuous competition to get their parents’ love and attention. The parents’ behaviors and responses to each child play a big role in strengthening a positive parent-child relationship and once that bond is established, they will eventually be accepting towards sharing you and your love with their brothers and sisters. Try some of these tips and see how they can bring important changes to your family dynamic!

Suggestions for further reading:

  • Crist, J., Verdick, E. Siblings: You’re Stuck with Each Other, So Stick Together. Free Spirit Pub., 2010
  • Faber, A. (Author), Mazlish, E. (Author), Mazur K. (Narrator). Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too. Simon & Schuster, (Audiobook), 2015
  • Markham, L. Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. Tarcher/Perigee, 2012

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