Children will compete for their parent’s attention, affection or approval. Sibling rivalry is normal. It is natural for children to want their parent’s love all to themselves.
The younger the child, the harder it is to share.
First-born toddlers may have it the hardest because they were once the only child, and before their brains are wired for sharing, they have a newcomer who demands all the attention, who is loud, and seems to control his or her parents.
Some parents are embarrassed by squabbling and competing among their children, especially if this happens in front of others. At moments like this parents need to remember that this is a normal phenomenon. Even dogs will compete for their owner’s attention and affection. Although sibling rivalry is normal, it should never be allowed to become destructive or dangerous, and you do want to intervene if you think it is going in that direction.
As long as it is garden variety simple struggles, it is often best to let the children work it out themselves. Sibling rivalry has some important developmental elements. It can teach children how to share, what is fair, and to discover in what ways they can assert their wishes without going too far. If parents squash all signs of inter-sibling conflict, it may be a little quieter around the house, but chances are the competitive, even angry feelings are just being suppressed and will likely resurface in more destructive ways when you aren’t looking.
You want to establish “the rules of the game” in terms of what you think is fair conflict, allowing them to handle it themselves, unless it starts to veer into more aggressive territory. You want to be fair and consistent. For example, if you have a “no hitting” rule, stick to it every time. Let your children know they will get a time out for violating the rules of engagement. For every year of age, do a minute of time-out, so a four year old who hits a younger sibling after being reminded of the no hitting rule, will get a four minute time-out. Be prepared to repeat the rules many times before they are adhered to.
There is a kind of healthy element to sibling rivalry, in that children need to find ways to assert their feelings in ways that don’t cause emotional or physical injury or emotional hurt. Hopefully parents are modeling or demonstrating healthy ways to have conflict, that still allows for both sides to be heard, and after expression, to feel they are still willing to play with each other safely. Healthy conflict helps all the children learn to manage their emotions and cope with the stress of not always getting their way.
There are things you can do to de-escalate conflict between siblings. First, avoid making comparisons of your children. Never say things like “Johnny is so good at math, how come you can’t do a simple problem?” These kinds of statements are very damaging, and rip at the fabric of self-esteem. Whenever possible see each child as unique and precious. Comparing one child to their sibling leads to unhealthy competition. It undermines the sense of unity as a family, and sets in motion an “everyone for himself or herself” dynamic.
Find ways to spend one-on-one time with each child, even if it is as simple as reading a story, giving a bath, listening to the day’s events. Give each child at least some single-focused attention, especially around an activity they enjoy. Do not allow the other younger sibling to invade this time, instead try to redirect their attention so you can remain focused on the first child.
Whenever possible, encourage and validate team work. Whenever they play well together, notice and give approval of this. Whatever you put your attention on, you get more of. So don’t be afraid to catch your children doing well together!
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