Your love for your children knows no bounds. The problem is, they just don’t seem to feel the same way about each other and the age-old challenge of sibling rivalry is disrupting your vision of domestic harmony.
Instead of having a wonderful cuddle for three with a precious child nestled into each shoulder, you’ll often find your children reaching over you to pinch each other, or glaring at each other over your shoulder. This is not what you signed up for!
On the bright side…
The good news (and it’s small comfort) is that sibling rivalry is completely normal. According to Ruth Ancer, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Johannesburg, small children are egomaniacs.
“They are hardly rational when they demand things from you or are unable to share with a classmate, so why should their relationship with their sibling be any different? Unfortunately, your kids have to spend a large amount of time with each other and it’s hard to live in close proximity to someone else and not have conflict – regardless of your age.”
Parents who expect their firstborn to embrace the arrival and development of a sibling are setting themselves up for disappointment. “How would you feel if your husband or wife came to you and said, ‘I love you so much, I think I want another one.’ This is such a clever way of explaining sibling rivalry, because to many children, the younger sibling is seen as a direct competitor for their most important resource – their parents’ love. And their response to their sibling informs their sibling’s response to them,” says Ruth.
However, normal or not, it’s still upsetting for a parent to be surrounded by endlessly bickering children.
Making it better
Unfortunately, there’s no magic piece of advice that will evaporate the squabbling. The solution, Ruth says, is striking a balance between interfering when necessary, and letting them sort it out for themselves. “Children learn about how to manage interpersonal relationships through their interactions with their siblings,” she says. “So you can’t interfere in every interaction, otherwise they will never learn to work it out.”
She says that it’s a good idea to establish the limits in your own mind. “You should get involved if you see blatant cruelty, or that someone is going to get hurt. Then, as a parent, it’s your role to mediate and set boundaries.”
Ruth says that one approach that can work is to put the problem-solving ball in their court. “Ask them how they would solve it rather than rushing in and making a ruling. You might find that their innate sense of fairness overcomes the irritation they are feeling in the moment.”
She says that complimenting a child whenever you see them compromise or solve a problem lays a foundation for positive behaviour as well.
You can also try to appeal to the older child’s sense of maturity. “You can say things like, “Five-year-olds know how to share. Three-year-olds are still learning to share, so your brother is so lucky he has you to teach him.”
You can also appeal to this child’s sense of long-term family relations. “Try telling your older child that the younger one will learn to behave from them. Explain that their negative behaviour is teaching the younger child to be a fighting brother or sister.”
Finally, model forgiving behaviour. If you and your husband have had an argument, let your children see the apology and make-up, as well as the irritation. Even if they don’t know that a fight has taken place, you can say something like, “I was feeling irritated with Granny this morning and I spoke crossly to her, so now I am taking her this bunch of flowers to say sorry.”
Don’t reinforce negative roles
Ruth says that it’s important that you don’t always cast one child in the role of the aggressor. “People have a tendency to sympathise with the child in the same birth order as they are, or to see the younger child as defenceless. Parents must be aware of their own biases about which child is starting the fight. But if you are always shouting at one child, they will take on that role and, ultimately, feel that they can do nothing right.”
Wherever possible, criticise the behaviour rather than the child. Instead of saying, “You are naughty/cruel/unkind/mean,” say, “The way you just treated your brother was unkind, mean, etc.”
“And if you can, always try to put away negative feelings at the end of the day. No matter how much your children have fought or argued, give them love at the end of the day,” says Ruth. “Reinforcing the positive relationship between you and the child is as important as trying to fix the relationship between the siblings.”