Sibling Rivalry

Full article from the Term 3 No 2 2006 Newsletter

Sometimes we bring the new baby home and what was once a peaceful home life begins to feel like a battle ground where fights and conflict between siblings seems to never end.
It is often useful to clarify specifically what we mean by sibling rivalry or conflict. This can give us some clues as to what to do as parents when sibling rivalry occurs.
Sibling rivalry is most commonly defined as, "the jealousy, and competition between siblings". It is most common and often most acute when a new baby arrives home.
It is quite a complex dynamic when someone new enters a family and home.
Whilst we may think we are parenting exactly the same way, and that nothing has changed except for the new baby, actually everything has changed.

For the child it often seems like the following:

  • Feeling displaced: someone else has come along
  • They don’t love me as much as they used to
  • Noticing a change in the amount of attention your receive.
  • Everyone is looking at the new addition
  • Might have had to change rooms
  • Time is taken away from you

Often, it is helpful to view the rivalry between an older child and a new baby or younger toddler in part almost like the older child has experienced a loss.
Their position in the family structure, their uniqueness, their relationships, often even the practical things of where they sleep or having a different room, all these things often change. The loss is about ‘everything isn’t the same anymore’.
This is why sometimes children regress in their behaviours. A new baby arrives home and the older child who was toilet trained, slips back to an earlier stage for a while.
They unconsciously wish to return to another time, when things were different.
It is often quite confusing for young children too. Everyone tells them how lucky they are, how great it is to have a new baby. Often the older child doesn’t feel so lucky at all!!
Often they will feel confused, displaced, perhaps think they are not as important anymore.
One of the things that can help with sibling rivalry is to recognise that with an older child having a new child come into the home, things can be quite difficult. Sibling rivalry is normal.

Strategies to help through this time include:

  • Avoid panic!!!
  • Allow children to express their feelings and acknowledge how they feel. For instance, “I know sometimes it is hard for you when your baby brother is crying and I have to look after him instead of playing with you”. “I know you are both feeling angry with each other. You might have to find a way to calm down and start again or play alone for a while.”
  • Avoid trying to get your first child or other children to instantly love and adore the new baby or toddler.
  • Avoid saying, “you are so lucky to have a little brother or a big sister”. They may not feel so lucky!!!
  • Set aside ‘alone time’ for each child. Each parent should spend some one-on-one with each child on a regular basis. Try to get in at least a few minutes each day.
  • Let each child know they are special—just for who they are.
  • Celebrate your children’s differences.
  • Each child is competing to define who they are as an individual. As they discover who they are, they try to find their own talents, activities, and interests.
  • They want to show that they are separate from their siblings and that they are recognised as individuals by their parents.

Conflict between siblings

  • Sibling conflict may arise from sibling rivalry. But sometimes, being part of a family means that frustrations, need for power or control, arguments, or different points of view will arise. It may not be rivalry so much between children, but simply frustration and annoyance.
  • The family is actually one of the safest places to experience conflict or argument. Within the emotional safety of the family, children can learn to sort through problems, to express their frustrations, to learn now to deal with others.
  • As parents we often step in too quickly when it comes to conflict between siblings.
  • It is important to help children learn to resolve, to sort out, to problem solve, to discuss, to negotiate and learn hopefully one day to compromise.
  • Experiences in the family can provide practice and experience for children to transfer the skills they learn in the family into everyday life.

Some strategies for conflict include:

  • Try not to be the referee/umpire when conflict arises, particular between children older than 3 years.
  • “You two will have to sort this out, and I am sure you can. It is your problem to sort out”. It is important they start to learn to resolve their own issues so try not to intervene
  • Take five
  • Avoid lecturing
  • Model that difference of opinion is normal and can be resolved
  • Provide times to be together
  • Never compare children or use one as the “good” model

Ensure that you recognise that sibling rivalry and sibling conflict are normal parts of childhood and that allowing some space for children to sort through their own conflicts is an important life skill. Obviously intervene when safety or dangerous situations arise. Acknowledging each child as special in their own right is one of the most important strategies throughout their whole lives.

Copyright © Kathy Walker 2006