Is your house a tranquil haven this school holiday, filled with peaceful sounds of sibling harmony, or is it more like world war three with shouting, door slamming, crying and then “mummmmmmm!!!!”. Chances are you answered yes to the second option and you wouldn’t be alone. It is perfectly normal for siblings to argue. Understanding what causes these flare ups and how best to deal with them can make life more harmonious for everyone.
Causes of sibling rivalry
- Differences in maturity; this can be emotional or intellectual. Children who are more competent at communicating their needs and are better able to negotiate often become frustrated with less able siblings when it comes to sharing toys, agreeing how to play a game, or what to watch on television.
- Competition for resources; this can be children wanting the same toy, food, or your time and attention. This is almost a primeval trait which dates back to caveman days of survival of the fittest.
- Jealousy; is one of the biggest cases of sibling arguments. This can come about when children feel their siblings are given more time and attention than they are, or praise and rewards aren’t equal. This may or may not be the case in reality, but your child will act on how they perceive things to be.
- Hunger and tiredness; can cause children to become more irritable and less tolerant. This can make it very hard for them to see beyond their own individual needs.
- Acknowledge your child’s emotions; regardless of how they feel, as their emotions are perfectly valid. Being frustrated and angry with a sibling who refuses to share a toy is a valid emotion, however, snatching the toy from them is an unacceptable way to behave. You might say “I can see you are very angry with Sarah as she has taken your favourite doll out of your bedroom, but snatching it from her isn’t kind, how else could you tell Sarah you are cross with her?”. This way your child feels you have understood their feelings and you are helping them find better strategies to resolve their current conflict.
- Encourage problem solving behaviour; by resisting the urge to get involved in your children’s arguments. Wherever possible allow your children to resolve their differences themselves, even if it means having to hear raised voices. By intervening too quickly we don’t allow our children to resolve conflicts for themselves, instead we teach them to come running to ‘mummy’ who will sort it out. However, the danger is we often haven’t seen what has happened and end up getting embroiled in an investigation to find the victim and perpetrator. This inevitably leads to more hostility between siblings as one child will feel hard done by, or not listened to.
- Give each child individual time; with you, doing something which they value. This can be as simple as reading a book together, colouring, cooking or going for a walk. Each child needs some scheduled undivided attention from you each day, even if it is only 10 minutes.
- Give each child individual space; for them to retreat to for time away from their siblings and ensure this space is respected. The space is likely to be their bedroom, so create rules about not going into each others bedrooms without first knocking and then being invited in.
- Avoid comparisons; as these create friction between siblings. Whilst comments such as “David, you are so kind and thoughtful” might boost David’s self esteem, it is likely to imply David’s sister, Susan, is not, as your comment is directed to David. Instead comment on the behaviour you see “David, it was very thoughtful of you to lay the table for mummy”. This still praises David but also allows Susan the opportunity to get the same level of praise, should she choose to help in some other way. The difference might seem too subtle for children to notice, but they do.
- Model good behaviour; at every opportunity, as children are more likely to model what they see. When you are stuck in traffic model patience rather than getting angry and shouting. When you disagree with your partner model how to resolve conflicts through respectful negotiation, rather than angry tirades.
It’s never easy managing sibling arguments but investing time getting to the root causes avoids many hours spent refereeing.