How to deal with sibling rivalry?

Sibling rivalry is a big problem for many parents for whom it’s difficult to understand why children fight and emotionally and physically hurt each other. There are different forms of sibling rivalry, including fighting, hitting, arguing, throwing things at the other one, lying, blaming, poking, name-calling, hiding the other one’s belongings, especially when they mean a lot to them. 

Most parents want to promote a close and respectful relationship between their children and hope that this relationship will be carried forward into adulthood. Problematic sibling interactions may make parents feel angry, disappointed, hopeless, sad, confused and powerless. 

What causes sibling rivalry?

The reason children act inappropriately may be that they want to become the ‘preferred one’ in their parents’ eyes. For this reason, they want to make the other sibling look bad; they might want to get your attention and misbehaving is an excellent way to achieve this; they might try to enlarge their power and influence i.e. they test what is forbidden and what is permitted; they may want to get a break from boredom and messing with a sibling can be a good way to do something more exciting; they might try to break the rules and push the boundaries i.e. try to test where the boundaries are. 

What are parents’ expectations?

Before children’s arrival, parents tend to idealise and to project positive visions about parenthood. Parents typically expect their children to be loving, to behave nicely with each other, to enjoy the time they spend together, and to protect each other. 

Often, the reality is much different. Keep in mind that when expectations don’t match the reality, you might feel a sense of loss and give up the pre-established idealistic and fantasised image of perfect sibling interactions that you had created yourself. Don’t blame your children or your parenting style.

How to manage sibling rivalry?

Before you judge your children and yourself, remember that it’s normal and inevitable at some degree. This means that there is nothing wrong with your children and parenting style. Some children gain benefits from the fighting, as they learn life skills such as protecting themselves, setting up boundaries and giving themselves some importance.

You can manage sibling rivalry by creating ‘family rules’ that each children need to follow. These rules can refer to various aspects, such as ways to handle anger and frustration; family’s values related to respect family members and their personal possessions; and boundaries such as things children can do to the other siblings and things children are not allowed to do. 

In addition to ‘family rules’, parents can adopt other strategies, including never showing favouritism – as you know, favouritism is at the core of jealousy and rivalry; always being clam and objective; avoiding looking for someone to blame and punish; explaining and motivating children to reflect on their actions; avoiding long discussions about what happened – treat the problem quickly and efficiently; avoiding forcing children to be ‘best friends’ with their siblings, play together and do everything together; teaching children problem-solving and developing their emotional intelligence. You can learn more about emotional intelligence here.

Don’t be ashamed to look for external support if needed.

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Please note that Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and Psychodynamic Therapy will help you acquire the knowledge and reflection you need. Learn more about Psychodynamic Therapy here and about CBT here. Don't forget that you can work with me at home. Learn more about online psychotherapy here

With warm wishes,

Dr Ivanka Ezhova

Founder of Angel Psychological Therapy – Online Psychological Therapy