A sibling can be a built-in best friend for life, but parents know that sisters and brothers can become fiercely antagonistic over everything from toys to grades to who got the bigger scoop of ice cream.
Relationships with siblings are a crucial part of shaping children who have them, and the rivalry they often bring is not always negative. Sibling competition can be as healthy as famously close sisters Venus and Serena Williams battling it out at Wimbledon. But when the rivalry is negative, small and large attacks, both verbal and physical, can have long-term effects.
Research shows that experience and perception of sibling relationships carry on into adulthood. And a recent global survey on family conflict revealed more than half the participants experienced physical violence between siblings. Nearly half the children surveyed said they were kicked, bitten or punched by a brother or sister. That may sound extreme, but the honest reporting of these issues is a reality that’s familiar to many parents.
Putting a stop to bickering and physical manifestations of conflict between siblings takes work and deliberate attention to the social climate in your home. But an awareness of these problems can change behaviors.
Focus on their differences
Family dynamics can engender negative sibling rivalry. If a child perceives a parent favors one sibling over another, that will undermine both the sibling and parent-child relationship. By contrast, in families where children feel they are treated equally by their parents and where their place in the family is respected and valued, rates of sibling rivalry are lower, researchers have found.
The key to tempering conflict between siblings is conveying to your children their intrinsic value, as well as what makes them unique. In doing so, you’re providing each with their own individualized standards — and that minimizes comparisons. Also make a point of granting each child privacy when it comes to their personal battles. Taking away incendiary fodder gives kids less to tease each other about, so be sure to communicate to all your children that their siblings’ problems are none of their business.
Foster respect and understanding
Establish ground rules for interactions in your home that quash harmful behaviors. Calling out teasing by its name, for example, empowers children to recognize their negative behavior and stop it in its tracks, without shaming them. Saying “That sounds like teasing” is a gentle reminder to kids to adjust their language and attitude. This type of guidance is also more effective than punishing, scolding or shunning, and it keeps the tone positive.
Promote the pursuit of diverse interests, too, so your children develop distinct skill sets. Sensitively acknowledge one sibling’s triumph in athletics while also addressing another child’s disappointment, if they don’t, for example, land a role in a school play or fail to place in a STEM fair.
Don’t step in to police your children’s disputes unless you believe someone could get physically hurt. Instead, allow them to try to work things out on their own. Even if they don’t come to an understanding in that moment, they’ll still learn something from the attempt. If a situation does get out of hand, call for a time-out so everyone can cool down.
Perhaps most important, provide one-on-one time with each of your children, taking care to verbalize your admiration for their individual strengths. Sibling rivalry often boils down to a child feeling as if they’re not getting equal attention; spending special time with all shows them they’re equally beloved.
Rachel Spector, MSW, has over 20 years’ experience in the field of early care and education; she currently oversees funding for early childhood development, including Miami-Dade County’s Quality Rating and Improvement System, at The Children’s Trust. For more information, visit thechildrenstrust.org.