Coping with sibling rivalry

Conflict between your kids needs to be managed or it could get out of hand. Here are practical tips for parents.

Sibling rivalry is mostly about competition among siblings for the attention of the parents. Children often argue and fight when their parents are around, but not when they're alone. The birth order of children and their different personalities often also causes sibling rivalry.

Sensitive parenting can prevent serious sibling rivalry from taking hold.

Sibling rivalry can be exhausting for both parents and children. Here are ways to manage it effectively.

Give your children individual attention
Children need lots of attention and the best remedy for sibling rivalry is to give each child plenty of individual attention and affirmation. If their tank is full, so to speak, they can deal with the fact that their siblings also need attention without feeling jealous.

Treat them equally
It's natural for parents to have different feelings towards each of their children and to treat them differently. It's when children get preferential treatment that problems arise. Young children are as aware of how their parents treat their siblings as how they themselves are being treated. If children feel they're being treated less fairly, they will be more likely to see their siblings as rivals.

Don't make comparisons
Most parents find it hard not to compare their kids: their firstborn was "easy", their eldest is "difficult" and so on. These labels often come to define a child's role in a family, sometimes unfairly, and can make the rivalry worse.

Be enthusiastic about your children's achievements
Even if you're not as excited about your youngest child's milestones as you were about your firstborn's because it's no longer something new, don't show it. Younger children need to know you're just as interested in them as you are in their older siblings.

Respect all your children
Children need to be treated with respect regardless of whether they're the eldest, youngest or middle child. Every child needs to feel loved and accepted by their parents regardless of their position in the family.

Set ground rules
Lay down the law as to what's acceptable behaviour and what is not. Shouting, shoving, hitting, biting, swearing and slamming of doors should not be tolerated. If children break the rules, make sure there are consequences for it.

Time out
If things start to get ugly, use the "time out" parenting tool and separate the siblings so that they can calm down. Send them to their bedrooms or to opposite sides of your home.

Be realistic
Don't expect an older child to behave in a more mature way than the younger siblings when they're fighting or arguing and don't reprimand your older child by saying you expected him or her to be more mature.

Teach your children problem-solving skills
Parents can't always mediate. It's important to teach children how to handle conflict themselves. For example, if a child's sibling taunts and teases, teach the child how to respond in a way that is not confrontational. It's dangerous to always try to mediate between them, since often the parent doesn't see what led to the squabble and kids are very good at appearing innocent when maybe they started the fight in the first place. If children have seen their parents deal with conflict effectively they will manage to sort things out themselves. When they do, praise them for it.

It can be a good thing.
Sibling rivalry is not all bad. Here are some of the pros:

It encourages competition. Competition is not always unhealthy. If harnessed correctly it can encourage children to work harder and help them to succeed later in life.

It alerts parents to potential problems. Sometimes parents don't know what is going on inside their children's heads and lives. Sibling conflict could give parents the opportunity to get kids to speak up about their concerns or problems.

It develops a child's personality. Sibling rivalry can be good if a child needs to learn how to stand up for himself.

Rivalry at different stages
Parents can deal with sibling rivalry more effectively if they understand their children's behavioural patterns at different stages.

Toddlers. At this stage kids are naturally protective over their toys and belongings. If someone threatens to take a toy away or an older sibling picks their toys up, they might become aggressive. Parents should be sensitive to this and realise they are merely protecting their possessions.

Preteens. They have a strong concept of fairness and equality at this age. Parents should keep a close eye on them because although they know right from wrong, they are still easily influenced and need to be given clear guidance on how to behave.

Teens. At this stage kids are trying to find a sense of identity and independence. The needs of teens are different; they still need guidance but also want to be independent. They are also very hormonal so it's good to know what's going on in their lives and treat them like the young adults they are. 

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