Siblings fight. It is as natural and instinctive as breathing and probably as necessary for survival. Although it drives the parents crazy, the siblings fighting and even their jealousy can be dealt with in a way that results in individual growth and promote a closer bond between siblings.
Before we delve into the ways to deal with sibling fighting and jealousy, it is necessary to understand a bit about sibling rivalry and why they fight with each other.
Why do siblings fight?
Children view their parents as a natural and only source for their basic needs – food, clothing, shelter, affection, love, and a sense of worth and identity. The arrival of another threatens everything the child considers necessary for survival. The fear of having less of everything they need for their well-being pushes them to become competitive. The child feels the need to fight for attention and more time with the parents.
What is sibling rivalry?
Sibling rivalry is inevitable with two or more children in a family. It refers to the feelings of jealousy, envy, competitiveness, and animosity that exists between siblings. It usually begins right after the second child is born. Parents have a hard time dealing with the constant fighting and jealousy between siblings.
Jealousy towards siblings became a pressing worry for parents post 1925 when child rearing manuals constantly delivered dire warnings about sibling rivalry. Parents of young children became aware of the possibility of physical injury or lasting unpleasantness due to uncurbed jealousy. Several strategies were outlined to minimize the tension between siblings. The later years saw a drastic shift in the family dynamics from the structure to the family size which brought about a real change in the emotional relations among siblings as children had less time together to bond and forge a lasting relationship.
17 ways to deal with siblings fighting and jealousy
If you are parents of more than two kids, chances are your home will often turn into a boxing ring with your children fighting it out over issues small and large. Even the best sibling relationships have their moments of jealousy and conflict. With a bit of guided insight, timely intervention, and lots of patience, parents can help their children co-exist peacefully.
1. Adopt a healthy and helpful attitude
Before you, as parents, begin to deal with siblings fighting and jealousy, which is not an easy task, you must look at yourself and realize how healthy and helpful your behavior and attitude is towards life in general and towards your children. Do you have the patience to listen to each of their stories, tantrums, accusations, and have the emotional capability to respond with care and attention? If not, start by adopting a positive and healthy outlook to life. Do what it takes to be helpful, kind, and patient because dealing with a bunch of toddlers or teenagers squabbling, nitpicking, fighting over everything is not going to be a cakewalk.
They need your undivided, authentic attention, and it is something you cannot fake. Kids will be kids – they are bound to throw tantrums, argue without reason, fight unfairly with each other, call names, tell tales, and cause a ruckus to get you to merely look at them if need be. You must be calm, sincere, loving, kind, firm, genuine, affectionate, mature, and understanding so they can do what they do and learn lifelong strategies for building healthy relationships from you during the process of sibling conflict.
2. Increase Holding Time to minimize conflict
Holding time represents the special time a mother spends physically embracing her child excluding all other distractions. During this period of intense physical and emotional connect, the child relaxes completely and a special closeness forms between the parent and the child. Holding time fosters an open, loving, and secure environment for the children to grow up in and thereby minimizes sibling conflict.
The sense of touch is of utmost importance in early childhood. Mothers and children primarily communicate through eye contact, voice, and touch. The close connection and communication during holding time relays the reason behind a child’s misbehavior so the mother can address the child’s feelings. When children receive their quota of attention, they are less likely to pick a fight with their siblings over a need for parental attention and validation.
3. Stay calm and coach instead of control
Parents must learn to regulate their emotions even when faced with their children’s worst behavior, tantrums, and fights. Children are expected to behave childishly, and it is the parents’ responsibility to step up as adults which means not giving in to temptation and throwing tantrums themselves.
Children often use the parent’s tone of voice and words to talk to their siblings. When the parents know how to regulate their emotions and speak calmly, the children also learn to manage their feelings and hence their behavior towards their siblings.
A coach supports the kids in becoming the best version of themselves without resorting to punishments. Parents who choose to coach instead of using controlling tactics on their children set limits without punishing. Parents who control their children by punishing raise siblings who end up being negative with each other. They learn to get what they want by threat or force.
In contrast, parents who resort to coaching methods raise children who learn to get what they want while still being respectful towards others. They master the art of conflict resolution and learn interpersonal skills that minimizes sibling fighting and jealousy.
4. Determine the quality and quantity of sibling conflict
Parents are in a unique position to determine the quantity and quality of a sibling conflict. How often do the siblings fight, what do they fight over, and how severe is their conflict? Some conflicts help strengthen their bond, while others take an ugly turn and has the potential to destroy their already fragile relationship.
- Destructive Sibling Conflict – Parental favoritism, differential treatment, and family stress is the source of destructive conflicts, which are marked by anger, hatred, and hostility between siblings. Insecure attachment with their mothers, punitive disciplinary methods, are also related to destructive sibling conflicts.
- Constructive Sibling Conflict – Reasoning, understanding, conciliatory methods, and discussions about feelings, family values, rules, and principles are associated with constructiveness in sibling conflicts. During these conflicts, children get an opportunity to develop an understanding of others’ needs, wishes, and desires. They also learn ways to oppose, disagree, and compromise within the safety net the durable nature of the sibling relationships.
Strategies such as time-out, social problem-solving instruction, and deprivation of privileges are useful in mitigating sibling fighting and jealousy.
5. Address the sibling rivalry
Siblings spend a lot of time together at home sometimes under supervision, most times not. When you know something is amiss between the siblings, bring it out into the open by addressing the sibling rivalry in the presence of everyone involved. Hold regular family meetings if your school-going kids are squabbling frequently over the same things.
Children often fight to get your attention, so give it to them. Sit with them, address the issue that concerns each of them individually, separately, and together. Let them know they are loved and reiterate the family rules and discipline that they must always adhere to. Spend time together having fun and laughing together, which helps reduce the tension and conflicts between siblings.
Create a loving family atmosphere for the children to safely express and address the sibling rivalry between them, knowing their parents care enough to be involved and invested in forging a healthy bond. Create a family culture of co-operation and support and look for a win-win solution to the problems between the siblings instead of allowing them to settle into a fight.
6. Stop being the source of sibling fighting and jealousy
It is believed that children’s motives for violent conflicts with their siblings arise out of their need for parental love, common possessions, and living space. Sibling conflicts usually emerge in response to parent’s failure to meet the needs for love. Each child’s needs varies and as parents, it is your responsibility to recognize the extent of your children’s needs and meet them. Here are a few processes to identify the key factors that influence sibling’s conflict:
- Differential Treatment – Although some differential treatment is inevitable and even appropriate based on the age difference between siblings and their respective temperaments, parents are always in a dilemma about this concept. Unfair differential treatment is when a child is ignored when the other is not, one child receives preferential treatment over the other, or when one has privileges or possessions the other does not. This is a major source of conflict between siblings. It fosters animosity among siblings and has the possibility of continuing into their adulthood if not addressed early by the parents.
- Need for Parental Attention – Kids vie for their parent’s attention. They consider it their birthright. Most often, sibling conflict is a result of receiving inadequate parental attention. Parent’s failures to meet their children’s individual emotional needs leads to feelings of discomfort and disparagement between siblings.
- Emotional Atmosphere of the Family – Children who feel secure in their parent’s love for them are less prone to fight with their siblings. A family atmosphere rife with tension where the kids have not formed a secure attachment to the parents, the siblings are more likely to translate their dissatisfaction to each other.
- Parental Reactions and Reasoning – As parents, you have a huge influence on your children’s behavior towards each other. Your mediation and conciliatory efforts go a long way in nurturing a congenial attitude among siblings. Mothers are often seen explaining their younger sibling’s feelings and needs to the older ones and vice versa. Your reactions to sibling conflicts and consistently communicating the moral principles to your quarreling children reduces the likelihood of siblings victimizing or abusing each other.
7. Recognize when children themselves are a source of conflict
There are several factors that can trigger sibling conflict. Sometimes their age difference, gender, and past interactions influence their behavior towards each other and are not the result of their relationship with their parents. We must consider their characteristics for an explanation as to why siblings argue with each other and fight constantly.
- Age gap – Siblings with considerable age difference have lesser conflict between them than the ones closer in age. Although this is a less significant factor than the other reasons, the quantity and quality of the interactions between the siblings are related to the gap in sibling ages. Relative ages too play a role in sibling conflicts. Older children seem to be the primary instigators while the younger ones learn their own strategies to counter.
- Gender – Boys are more prone to show hostility towards their siblings than girls by means of physical force and threats. Although this does not indicate less conflict among girls. It is often seen that opposite-sex siblings quarrel more often than the same-sex ones.
- Temperament – Children who are emotionally intense and physically active are known to aggress more against their siblings than the kids who have an easy-going nature and are relatively calmer.
- History of Interaction – Most often the sibling’s conflict is cyclic and is a result of a long history of their interactions with each other. One hit leads to another, a punch for a stronger punch and so on – the hostilities pile up to become a difficult relationship.
- Situational context – Depending on the situation, the quality and the quantity of siblings fighting varies. Siblings are more like to fight in a competitive setting during sports or board games when one is pitted against the other. Siblings are also known to fight often when they are bored and have nothing else to do.
8. Listen, acknowledge, and reiterate both sides
Children want to be heard. They need to be heard individually, separately, with rapt attention. Hold their hand, make eye contact, acknowledge by nodding and verbally when they speak to you. Communicate your understanding in words. Each side will have a story to tell you. They are not just telling you what happened, they are, in all probability relaying their feelings to you. Pay attention and reiterate both sides; only then can you resolve the tension between the siblings.
Listening to each of the siblings involved in a fight will give you an insight into the causes for the conflict. Treat your children fairly. Punishing one when you let the other one off the hook will only fuel the jealousy and hostility between the siblings. Partiality will get you nowhere with the kids and may in turn lead to disastrous consequences.
9. Identify common causes for fighting and jealousy
There are some common causes for siblings’ fighting and jealousy especially among kids of school going age and toddlers.
- Arrival of a new baby – Although joyous, the arrival of a new baby often causes older siblings to feel unloved, frustrated, and displaced. This leads to aggression toward the newborn and attention seeking behavior, and most often maturity and independency as well. Open parent-child communication, non-intervention in sibling conflicts, and treating them equal minimizes feelings of jealousy between the siblings.
- Siblings fighting over toys– Siblings often fight to protect what they consider theirs from toys to rooms. This is one of most common reasons why siblings fight with each other. By instilling discipline, parents can reduce the length of the fights and minimize the intensity of the conflict.
- Competing to define their identity – Each child is on a path to self-discovery and competing to define who they are as individuals. They are trying to find their own likes and dislikes, their areas of interests, talents, and activities to build on. A bit of tussle between siblings is expected. Giving each child space, respect, and attention is what you need to do to ensure they do not resort to fighting or jealousy very often.
- Siblings fighting for attention– Siblings, most often, compete for their parents undivided attention, love, and care. A child starved for any of the basic needs like food, clothing, and parent’s care is bound to feel neglected, frustrated, and angry which might lead to behavioral issues with the siblings.
- Family dynamics – When parents think of aggression between siblings as normal and fighting as an acceptable way of communication, the children are prone to more conflict and learn less about conflict resolution.
10. Raise them to be friends and companions
Children are not born adversaries. It is hard to hit or hate someone you care about. By raising them to be sensitive to each other’s feelings and emotions, you nurture a life-long friendship amongst the siblings. Children first learn to get along with other children when learning to live with their siblings. Parents play a crucial role of a facilitator by shaping their relationships instead of controlling them.
A study comparing the interpersonal relationships of young adults and their closest circle of friends with their siblings suggests that the relationships with friends were characterized by less differentiation and more positive feelings than the sibling relationships.
Friendship between siblings is especially possible when they are age peers or closer in age. Sibling relationship is the first intimate relationship with a peer a child experiences and their interactions often model the interactions with friends formed in childhood. One of the aspects of sibling relationships is sibling loyalty that co-exists with sibling rivalry, conflict, and competition.
11. Set firm limits and ground rules for acceptable behavior
Children always test the parent’s tolerance levels with their behavior. When fighting it is easy for siblings to cross the line between normal bickering and serious physical assault if there are no ground rules to adhere to in general.
As parents you are responsible for setting limits that children should never cross and establish some ground rules for acceptable behavior within the family. Early on, children learn to respect hard limits when the parents emphasize the seriousness of stepping up and taking responsibility for their own actions.
When the family rules clearly state that no violence is acceptable for any reason and parents follow this too in their interactions with their children, there is less chance of the siblings using violence or physical threat in their fights with each other. There is no harm in setting some hard limits.
Involve them in the process of setting limits, take their inputs, explain the reasons and importance of following the rules, and educate them about the consequences of breaking them regardless of the context, situation, or how provoked they were to break them. Dissuade any of their attempts at negotiating who was wrong and who was right.
12. Know when and how to intervene
It is at home, amidst family, that children first encounter conflict and it is within the family atmosphere that kids pick up the conflict resolution strategies. It is normal for parents to choose to stay out of siblings bickering about everyday things especially if they assume it stems from boredom or need for attention.
But there are situations when, parental intervention becomes crucial for conflict resolution and to preserve the mental, physical, and emotional health of the siblings. Parents must consider the nature of the sibling conflict before intervening. Some fights result from deep seated issues that need to be addressed earlier on. Parents’ refusal to intervene might aggravate the situation and lead to a permanent rift between the siblings.
Although there are some studies that suggest that parents deprive their children of an opportunity to develop key conflict resolution strategies on their own by intervening, parent’s timely intervention in the most intense fights between siblings in which the children showed few de-escalating strategies has shown positive results. Parental intervention resulted in fewer power struggles between the siblings and a marked increase in the use of sophisticated negotiation tactics by the children. A study also states that the beneficial effects of parental intervention are immediate and positively impacts the quality of the sibling conflict.
13. Practice non-intervention when necessary
Often, it is assumed that siblings simply fight to attract the attention of the adults. Research indicates that at times, parents’ refusal to intervene allows the children to sort out their problems by themselves. Some have argued that non-intervention into siblings fighting is likely to let one child establish superiority over another and the fighting eventually stops because of learned helplessness by the defeated.
Parents decide not to intervene in the sibling conflict assuming that their children are equally equipped mentally, physically, and emotionally to come to a satisfactory resolution on their own. You can decide to refrain from intervening when the siblings indulge in normal bickering and there is no chance of it escalating into a serious scuffle that could cause physical, mental, or emotional harm to the siblings.
14. Help them become caring and compassionate
Children follow by example. You cannot teach them to speak softly if you speak harshly yourself. They constantly pick-up cues from the parents on model behavior. They watch and learn from parents on how to settle conflicts from the way we handle our problems with our spouses, extended family, friends, and colleagues. When parents are respectful during their disagreements, children learn to adopt positive conflict resolution skills themselves. Every family relationship including that of the parents with their parents have a huge influence on sibling relationships and rivalry between them.
15. Avoid favoritism and comparisons between siblings
Since time immemorial, parents have been picking favorites among their children to disastrous consequences. Unfortunately, children are the first ones to become aware of the parental preferences. Favorite or not, children never forget either-ways their entire life. Siblings often use this knowledge to manipulate the parents for their own advantage.
Like it or not, all parents compare their children and eventually, in doing so, they pick a favorite. It is tough not to compare. Human brain is designed to compare one with another. Even though it is a hard task to refrain from doing so with your own children, try and consciously avoid comparing your children favorably or unfavorably for their benefit as well as yours.
Siblings want to be treated equally, if not better, by their parents in all respect however impossible it may be to do so. From the portion sizes on their plates, to the clothes you buy for them, to the length of the hugs and how many kisses you give them, each child of yours wants to be, ideally, the sole recipient of your love. The child is already having to share their quota with the siblings, and comparisons only reconfirms their feelings that they are being shortchanged for their brothers and sisters.
- Recognize the truth
- Know your prejudices
- Acknowledge the favoritism
- Recognize the differences
- Practice fair treatment
The need to be superior and hence receive better treatment than their siblings cause jealousy and pushes them to fight to establish that they are better in any way possible and hence deserve to be treated better by their parents. Treat each of your children with care and relative fairness.
16. Encourage kids to express in a positive manner
Talking to the kids often about feelings, thoughts, and emotions is a good start. Gently nudge them to express themselves with you. Spending one-on-one time, communicating with each other helps the children to open up more about how they feel. When siblings fight, they often end up blaming each other or calling you out on your reactions more than their own feelings that initially triggered the fight.
Often, the issues that siblings fight over is more serious than a mere attention-seeking tactic and needs to be addressed. Encourage the children to focus more on expressing what upset them rather than their sibling. Turn it into a discussion and draw in responses from each of the involved parties on their feelings about the incident. Address the problem, seek solutions from them. Give them each a fair chance to express their side of the story focusing on their own feelings, thoughts, and emotions.
This gives all of them a chance to listen and understand each other and leads to healthy conflict resolution. By teaching them how to express in a positive manner, children get to understand that they can get what they want without resorting to fights or jealousy.
You can use the help of several children’s books with illustrations to introduce your toddlers to sibling relationships, how to get along, be patient and kind to your siblings. This especially helps on the arrival of a new baby into the family.
17. Promote team spirit instead of competition
Introduce them early to the concept of team and how teams function together as one single unit without compromising on the individuality of the members. Sibling conflicts are minimal in families that spend quality time together – playing, interacting, and eating together often. Children need to witness that their actions and behaviors within and outside the family impacts the whole team or the family.
When siblings fight, they not only hurt each other but the entire family as well. Comparing the kids and pitting them against each other to see who is better is a strict no-no for siblings’ harmony. Competitions build resentment while inculcating the team sprit improves the bond between siblings and is bound to last throughout their lives.
When to get professional help for siblings fighting?
Although in a small percentage, there are families where the siblings’ fighting and jealousy are so severe that it ends up disrupting the daily functioning of the family as a unit and negatively affects the kids emotionally and psychologically. In such cases, it is advisable to seek professional intervention to manage sibling conflict. Here are some signs when it is prudent to seek professional help:
- There is a danger of physical harm to any family member
- When it is damaging to the psychological well-being of anyone in the family
- Causes are related to mental health concerns such as depression
- Severity of the conflict leads to marital problems
- Behavioral issues that disrupt normal functioning of the family
- Threat to life of any family member
Mental health professionals, counsellors, and therapists can be of immense help in mitigating the conflict between the siblings.
Siblings share a special bond that when cultivated and nourished with parental care, love, and attention, has the potential to last a lifetime. Parents play a crucial role in laying the foundation for a strong sibling relationship to develop among their children. Siblings fighting and jealousy, though normal in families, must be dealt with calmness, compassion, and maturity expected of any adult, especially parents.
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