Sibling rivalry; how to take it from painful to purposeful.

Sibling rivalry; it can be an irritating interruption on family life; it can test our patience, get under our skin; it can seem an unnecessary plague to our family unit that appears to serve no purpose other than create disharmony?  

The sibling relationship is also life’s longest lasting relationship so it is definitely one that needs to be nurtured and tended to.

So what is sibling rivalry?

“Sibling rivalry is competition between siblings for the love, affection, and attention of one or both parents or for other recognition or gain.”

Vanderbilt University; Division of Administration; Child & Family Center.

Whilst some years ago now, this is a photo of my two treasures.  How sweet do they look sat next to each other smiling away as if butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths? Rewind, pre this snap, and you could have       been fooled into thinking that world war three was about to ensue!  

Was it their competitive spirit that they each had to be in control of the wheel? Was there an element of traditional role play where of course he was the male, he should be the tractor driver? Or, was this a “gifted” opportunity in the art of negotiation, compromise and conflict resolution that sibling rivalry so frequently affords?

The initial, amicable chatter soon turned into bickering, with each child giving voice as to why they should take the wheel. However, this was one of those occasions where my usually laid back son would not give in.  Despite his smaller stature, he clung to that steering wheel as if his life depended on it, deaf to his sister’s rowdy attempts at trying to suggest otherwise.  Although in a public arena, I chose to be an observer; conscious that those around me could be questioning my apparent lack of supervision. For me, this was an opportunity to wait, stand back, watch and see. As moments passed the bickering was not waning.  I could feel my irritation building as the decibels increased, where those around were being distracted by my feuding pair. Then came the screeching appeals! “Mummy she’s,” “Mummy he’s not,” “Mummy, I got here first!” I could sense the assumptions of other park users, who were probably brimming with pride and shining their parental halos as their children held hands, full of sibling love, while they skipped on by!

Should I stick to plan or succumb to the urge of intervening for the sake of saving face?  Perplexed, I wondered what their battle might achieve?

For many of we mothers who would rather live without the unwanted aggravation, it seems that sibling rivalry is important to our children’s emotional development, where the skill in learning how to argue with their siblings can be a great lesson in conflict resolution. Gina Stepp; Vision; Laurie Kramer interview;" Brother's and Sister's Unite."

James Lehman, child behavioural therapist, explains that whilst difficult and sometimes painful, sibling rivalry and jealousy are a normal part of life, but adds, “it is our responsibility to help our kids learn to manage the feelings that come along with it.” James Lehman; Empowering Parents; “Siblings at War in Your Home?”


So, if sibling rivalry is an arena for life lessons that help our children’s emotional development, what are we to do?

Here are six tips to remember while mindfully nurturing the sibling relationship in your home:


1. Remember we are role models.  How we handle conflict is an example to our children. Show them how we can talk through problems with our partner, relative or friend where, in spite of upset, we can be the example of compromise or apology if we’ve said something upsetting, including to our children.

2. Be mindful. This takes some conscious parenting. If we remind ourselves of the fundamental reason behind sibling rivalry; it’s about our child’s perception of how much of our attention they are getting compared to their siblings; so it’s up to us, our own behaviour and how we share our attention. Try to plan for regular, one on one time with each child. It doesn’t mean we have to take each child on special outings, it could be as simple as reading a story just to them, sharing their favourite song, letting them help us, or an exclusive cuddle.

3. Avoid comparisons. Competition can be created by comparisons. Rather, try to acknowledge with each of your children their individual strengths and efforts which is more likely to lead to cooperation. Look for each and every opportunity to acknowledge and reinforce their positive uniqueness and behaviours.       

4. Recognise their feelings. Children need their feelings validated even if negative.  As a parent it’s our job to actively listen to our children, to hold and understand their feelings. We are that place where their feelings can be contained.  A child may say, “She’s mean, I don’t like her.” We can acknowledge their feelings by saying something like, “So you feel like your sister’s mean and that you don’t like her.” It’s all too easy to respond with, don’t say that, she’s your sister” just because societal expectations would have it that way. Negative emotions are genuinely felt and require validation too!  

5. Set the ground rules. Each parent and family is different, but it’s important you let your children know the ground rules.  And, if broken, they need to understand the consequences. It may be that you’ve explained that if they argue and fight, should it get to a physical point, or where there’s name calling, then that’s when consequences kick in. Your ground rules set the tone for what is, and is not, acceptable behaviour. If perhaps you’ve made time out a consequence to physical fighting, then it’s paramount that you step in and follow this through. Give children the space and chance to learn their own conflict resolution skills by being an interested observer, but choosing to intervene only when the ground rules are broken. Remember, when disciplining your children, avoid doing so in front of others which can cause shame and embarrassment.

6. Be a coach not a referee.  The minute we step in and make judgements it can raise perceptions of unfairness. It invites focus to the fighting and can dilute any attempts that our children may be making in conflict resolution as they’re likely to adapt their behaviour to gaining our allegiance. Instead, try to be impartial, hear all sides, make suggestions that they can choose to agree to, that will support resolution. If feelings have escalated, where resolution seems unlikely, giving each child time out allows cooling off time but, it’s important they know there will be discussion time later where positive lessons can be learned.

There may be no relationship that’s closer, finer, harder, sweeter, happier, sadder, more filled with joy or fraught with woe than the relationship we have with our brothers and sisters.
— Jeffrey Kluger

We all have days when we’re tired and frustrated, where the niggling has seemed constant and we just want peace to shroud family life. Those moments, when as humans ourselves, we are near to explosion and so ready for our own time out!  Take heart and lots of deep breaths. When the wave of irritation or dread is about to crash, try to think of the rivalry as a gifted opportunity, where your children can learn cooperation and compromise; how to resolve and even prevent conflict, as well as the choices of competitiveness and empathy.

To all you amazing mummas who try your best in the battles of sibling rivalry, take comfort and pride that your each and every effort will pay dividends, where your learning, patience and understanding invested can support future relationships and the lifelong bond of siblinghood.  


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