Siblings…brother or sister. I have one older sister. My husband has an older brother and a younger sister. My children have each other. In the US, approximately 80% of individuals have a sibling. In all sibling relationships (even those of twins) there is always a younger and an older. Even if there are middles stuck in there, they still have at least one sibling older than them and at least one younger.

The Addition

Think about it…you have a child. That child is the center of your attention for at least a period of time. No one else is there that your child must share toys or attention with. This child has you all to themselves. Suddenly someone else appears. All of that special 100% alone time…gone. Now this other being is occupying your time and that first child has to share you.

As an adult we can look at that scenario and imagine that it must be difficult. With our ability to think abstractly we can concoct explanations and rationalizations in our mind to explain away the change. But young children don’t have this ability to think abstractly. All they know is that one day they had you to themselves and then suddenly that all changed. And why did it change? Because of that new brother or sister.

Why Does Sibling Rivalry Occur?

For all intents and purposes, sibling rivalry is just jealousy and competition, dressed up in a fancy term. Your children are jealous of one another. They want what the other one has…always. It doesn’t matter if your oldest doesn’t even like playing with toy cars, if your youngest is playing with them, look out. Your older child is bound to snatch that toy away in seconds…just because they can.

This is happening in my household as I write this. P (3:9) cannot deal with T (18mo) playing with any of her toys. She may be happily playing with her kitchen toys when out of the corner of her eye she spots T moving toward her crayons. Suddenly the kitchen is abandoned and the crayons are grabbed right out of T’s hands. When this first started happening T was too young to really notice or react. Now, he’s big enough to not only get mad, but to scream about it and try to grab back.

It’s a really fun time at my house.

Common Causes

So what are common causes of sibling rivalry?

1. Addition of a new sibling (instant competition for affection and attention)

2. Feelings of inequality (one child feels they are getting less attention than the other)

3. Stress at the parental level (trickles down to the kids whether we realize it or not)

4. Hunger, boredom, fatigue (no one is their best self when any of these are in the mix)

5. Attention seeking (not all children know how to get attention in a positive way – but they know if they fight with their sibling a parent is likely to get involved)

What Can Parents Do?

There are many ways that parents can intervene in situations of sibling rivalry.

1. Find out what is starting the fighting in the first place, and what each child is ‘getting’ from the fight.

From a behavioral point of view we always want to know the A-B-C ‘s of the situation.
A = antecedent, B = behavior, C = consequence

What happened right before (antecedent) the fight (behavior) and what happened after/what was the result (consequence).

Remember that consequences are not always negative. You may see the consequence of a fight as you punishing one child, but that child may see the consequence as them getting direct attention from you.

If you see a pattern, what can you do next time to try to prevent the fight from occurring?

2. Point out the good & stay positive

Most of the time kids get attention and are told when they do something bad. It’s always the bad that is acknowledged. Try to praise them for the good. If they are NOT engaging in a negative behavior, make note of it. And let them know that you’re noticing.

“Suzie, I really like that you let your sister play with you. It looks like you guys are having so much fun sharing those dolls.”

3. Establish “Special Time”

Often, with the addition of a child, the older child may start to feel lonely, jealous and in competition with their sibling for your attention and affection. Try to set some ‘special time’, especially with the older child. In my house I will typically say something like this when I notice P getting a little aggressive with her younger brother:

“P, when your brother takes his morning nap, why don’t you and I go on a nature walk and find some great leaves that we can use in a painting?”

That 10-15 minute walk can have a tremendous positive impact on her behavior.

4. Set Limits and Expectations

All children will fight. It’s inevitable. Each family sets its own rules and expectations about what is appropriate and allowed within their house. With the establishment and understanding of a house rule, sometimes all it takes is a look to prevent that grab or push. Or saying the child’s name. What works in your house?

5. Stay Calm

Kids do need to learn to problem solve. Before you jump in to intervene in a situation that you think may be brewing, stop and observe what is really going on. It may look like your children are fighting when in reality they are working through a situation.

You may observe a situation where child #1 is looking like they are going to be physical with child #2 because they WANT you to intervene…what would happen if you didn’t? Will the fight still happen? Will child #2 be able to stand up for themselves?

Obviously if you need to get involved you should…but sometimes it’s better if you sit back and watch them work it out themselves.

Bottom Line

I think the most important thing to establish with your children is that they are forever family. Friends may come and go. Siblings are forever. And believe it or not, one day your children will like each other. There are so many other recommendation, suggestions, etc. that I could discuss, it’s almost overwhelming.

Kids go through so many stages of sibling rivalry – my sister and I went through them all: emotional, verbal and even physical fights…let’s just say someone’s nose was broken. But today I can honestly say that my older sister is my best friend. She has been there with me through thick and thin. And even though I have very strong memories of the sibling rivalry we experienced, I know there is no other person I would rather have on my side then her. 🙂