Siblings can be best friends, but they can also be worst enemies. There have been relatively few studies on sibling rivalry to date. Some of the studies, however, suggest that the relationship between siblings is very complicated, even in “normal” families.
Researchers argue that sibling relationships can become toxic as they often revolve around a sense of “unequal justice” and competitiveness. Moreover, strong emotions such as jealousy and envy often underlie these relationships.
Sibling rivalry is a tricky issue because hatred once unleashed knows no bounds. Damage done in childhood is not so easily resolved in adulthood. As many adults who have experienced sibling rivalry know, the divide often proves impossible to overcome with time.
Yet siblings can be a source of strength. As rightly pointed out, no other relationships last as long as sibling relationships. Siblings are always there and can play quite a variety of roles in childhood and beyond: friends, partners in mischief, confidants, companions, role models, etc.
It’s never easy for parents when kids give up on each other. Many blame themselves for having failed to create strong bonds. The truth is that whether or not they are aware of it, to a great extent, parents control the dynamics underlying sibling relationships. In other words, how we raise our kids can turn them into allies, or make them the greatest enemies of all time.
Tips to foster positive sibling relationships
1 | Be fair, not equal
Despite our best efforts as parents, we can never treat our kids equally and there’s evidence to support this view. Multiple studies have found that siblings are treated differently throughout life. The good thing is that treating kids “unequally” isn’t the problem. Treating them “unfairly” is.
Treating kids unfairly increases the chances of sibling rivalry. When one kid feels that he or she has been unjustly treated in relation to others, a less positive sibling relationship is likely to develop.
However, research on sibling rivalry suggests that the quality of sibling relationships can be improved if kids believe that the reasons for differential treatment are fair.
Being fair means treating each kid as an individual. It means taking into account issues such as age and competencies into account. When siblings understand that older kids have more privileges but they also have more chores, they are more likely to view decisions as fair.
The book Siblings Without Rivalry perfectly illustrates how we can treat kids unequally and still be fair. It provides multiple resources to help parents understand the ways in which some of their parenting techniques can lead to or increase rivalry. It also gives practical ideas on how to help kids fight, but still remain friends.
2 | Instead of telling kids not to fight, teach them how to fight
The one thing you can expect from siblings is the fighting. All siblings fight. There’s not much you can do about that. That’s just the way it is. Expecting your kids not to fight will only lead to frustration. Fighting is normal sibling behaviour. However, how they fight, and what they do once the fight is over matters.
Teaching kids how to fight
- Set the ground rules. What are acceptable ways to resolve conflict? What is unacceptable? Be specific about what kids are not allowed to do (for example biting, physical fights, etc.).
- Be clear about the consequences if rules are not respected. As soon as a rule is broken, intervene and apply the consequences.
- Remember that when we involve our kids in decision making, they are more likely to respect the rules set.
3 | Intervene only when you must
You’ve probably noticed that when you take sides when your kids fight, the “guilty party” often feels wrongly accused and tries to justify why the other party is just as guilty, if not guiltier than he is.
Taking sides can actually aggravate sibling rivalry, especially when it is done frequently. Resist the urge to repeatedly assign blame to one kid for “always starting fights.” Remember that our kids are likely to live up to what we believe of them so focus on the positive.
To avoid sibling rivalry, don’t focus on “who started it.” One approach you can use is to describe what you see: “I see two kids physically fighting and that’s against the rules.” If none of the rules are being broken, do your best to ignore them. Walk away or ask them to take their fighting elsewhere.
When should you get involved?
- When toddlers or young kids are involved
- When your kids seem to constantly fight over the same thing
- When fights become too aggressive. Remember that aggressiveness can also be a sign of kids’ inability to manage strong emotions. If your kids are constantly reacting to each other with violence, you may need to teach them how to manage anger and anxiety in appropriate ways.
4 | Teach kids to cooperate, not to compete
It’s true that some things make our life easier. We tell our kids that whoever finishes his dinner first will get something in return. We tell them that whoever brushes their teeth first will get a special treat. We tell them that whoever reaches the car first can sit in the passenger’s seat.
The problem is that turning to competition to get things done faster teaches kids that everything is a race. It teaches them that they are “against each other.”
If we want to prevent sibling rivalry, we must teach our kids to work together. When we tell them that they can get that special treat if the living room is tidy within five minutes, we teach them to work together. When we tell that that the first kid to finish tidying up his or her room will get that special treat, we teach them competition.
5 | Make family bonding a priority
Having regular opportunities to bond helps kids create strong bonds. Establishing family traditions is a great way to help families bond. Remember that family traditions are not about quantity. Great family traditions are intentional.
When each kid can participate in the routines, the chances of bonding are higher. The more kids have fun together, the lesser the chances of sibling rivalry. Mastering the art of family negotiation can also help strengthen the parent-child bond.
6| Begin a one-on-one routine
According to Jane Nelsen, author of the famous book Positive Discipline, spending a few minutes with each of your kids at the end of each day can help them feel special and help nurture their self-esteem.
Have one-on-one moments every day with each of your kids. Ask them about their “happiest moment” and their “unhappiest moment.” When kids feel appreciated, they are more likely to develop positive sibling relationships.
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An earlier version of this post previously appeared on the site parent.co