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How to handle sibling rivalry

Ciska Thurman looks at sibling squabbles, why they happen and what your role should be.

When it comes to brothers and sisters, we’re in it for the long haul – indeed, for most of us, these will be the longest lasting relationships we’ll have. For many parents, the introduction of a sibling is interpersonal, providing (for their older child) someone to grow up with and someone to accompany them through life’s feats and failures. Why, then, is sibling rivalry relatively sidelined when it comes to lessons in relating? Should we leave our kids to ‘sort it out by themselves’? When and how should we intervene in their disagreements?


Childhood quibbles

‘Sibling rivalry is a normal aspect of childhood,’ explains Joanne Becker, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at the South African College of Applied Psychology. ‘Our siblings are our first rivals. They compete against us for the love and attention of the people we need most, our parents, and it’s understandable that we can feel threatened.’

Some argue that a bigger or smaller age gap makes all the difference, though two or more children living in the same home, expected to act in accordance with the same rules, will inevitably clash due to differences in perception and personality. Other factors include position in the family, gender, and the degree of parental involvement too.

While sibling spats may be noisy and annoying, they provide a safe context in which children learn about conflict
– vital for their development. Joanne explains:
‘Learning to manage intense feelings is a crucial task of childhood and sibling relationships offer children an opportunity to work through these and to master social skills – things like negotiation, compromise and tolerance – that they can then use in the outside world.’ Other useful lessons include learning how to assert, defend, and deal with envy and jealousy.


Adulthood fall-out

What is most important though, says Joanne, is that the childhood dynamics should not persist into adulthood, where they manifest as bitter conflict. When left unaddressed, conflicts can catapult adult siblings back into their childlike ways of relating. ‘Long-standing sibling conflicts are likely to result more from difficulties within the childhood family than between the siblings themselves,’ Joanne clarifies. ‘In fact, research shows that adults from rigid or conflict-ridden families tend to have a far harder time changing perceptions of their siblings and breaking out of childhood roles.’


Your role

This is why parents of quarrelling kids play such a pivotal role: helping their youngsters practise what it takes to express, collaborate and apologise (or forgive) effectively. We can’t expect our children to traverse these complex social subtleties on their own. Here are some practical pointers to get you off on the right path:

Reduce the obvious triggers:

Hunger, boredom and exhaustion will tend to make your kids cranky. Minimise compromising your schedule when it comes to eating, playing and sleeping.

Teach empathy:

Knowing what it feels like to be on the receiving end is a good self-regulator. You want your children to think through what they’re about to do.

Sidestep comparisons:

Feelings of inferiority often lead to bickering siblings. Make your home the one place where your children are not compared to others or to one another.


What to do when the rivalry starts

Acknowledge feelings ‘I know you’re angry that Jesse took your toy away while you were playing with it. But you can’t hit him just because you want it back.’ Dismissing or suppressing emotions means your child will never learn how to control these feelings effectively later.

Avoid blame Unless you’ve actually witnessed every turn of an escalating argument, avoid the temptation to step in and play referee.

Stay out of it A toy tiff is a good opportunity to teach your children to handle the dispute on their own. ‘I’ll
be back in one minute. If you haven’t worked out by then how to share the
toy, it’s getting packed away so no one can play with it.’


But when your kids really turn up the heat…

Step in Verbal attacks and physical aggression require immediate parental intervention. By remaining silent, you are effectively siding with the victimiser.

Remove them from the situation When a row escalates too quickly to solve with words, simply move each child to his/her own time-out area to calm down and regroup.

Introduce a family plan When the peace is restored, sit down and agree on some firm house rules – guidelines regarding shouting, hitting, damaging property, rough-housing, name-calling etc. Display them prominently.


Remember this

The advantage of being a brother or a sister is (initially) having your very own live-in support system, followed by (hopefully) having a lifelong friend.