If you have more than one child, chances are pretty darn good that there is some sibling rivalry happening. They might love each other and play beautifully one second and the next they are screaming at each other or punching each other in the face.
Younger children tend to be more physically aggressive, whereas older kiddos tend to get verbally argumentative.
Sibling rivalry can actually be healthy as they learn to express their needs and manage conflict. So we really don’t want to be jumping in all the time – these are great learning opportunities for them.
We definitely want to be proactive and work on helping your children improve their relationships. Here are some tips on proactively helping your children strengthen their relationships.
Acknowledge and address their unique needs
Every child is different. Therefore, each child has different needs, different likes, different styles, and even different ways they like to interact. Whenever possible, address their uniqueness.
Just because you take one out for hot chocolate doesn’t mean you have to do that for the other if that’s not their thing. Perhaps they’d prefer to go to the comic shop.
They might not want to both play soccer. They might not want to both play piano. Or eat the same lunch.
Think about where you might be doing the same thing for both and see where you can individualize things for them.
Pair siblings with fun and positive emotions
Our brain is based on rewards and we want to associate siblings as someone they want to hang out with.
Try to maximize as many short positive interactions as you can throughout the day. For example, perhaps one sibling can share a trick or joke of the day and the other can share a meme or short little video of the day.
Perhaps they can only access an enjoyable activity when they are with each other. In my house, the girls have a weekly date night where they can choose to do things we don’t normally get to do, such as watch their favourite TV show together.
Teach the difference between fair vs. equal
Many siblings get upset if they perceive something as unfair when they are not treated equally. However, learning the lesson that fair does not mean equal can be helpful.
For example, if you are watching a street performer, one child might be able to see over the crowd whereas the other cannot. You might have to therefore pick one child up who can see. It’s not equal, because one has to stand on their own, but it’s now fair because they can both see.
Comparing your children in any way, whether based on their abilities, how well they listen or follow through with chores or even their tastes in music can create hurt, resentment, and self-doubt. Never use any comparison language in front of them.
Some children become upset if they see their sibling being praised. Therefore, it is important to avoid generalizations “Oh Billy, you’re so good” and instead be very specific about what your child did “Oh Billy, thanks so much for putting the dishes away right away – that will help make dinner clean-up go so quickly for me.” Be sure to avoid adding a dig to the others (e.g., “I wish everyone would clean up so quick.”
Set them up for success
We can usually anticipate when things will go sideways for our children. Be proactive, identify those problematic times, and set your children up for success.
For example, if they are playing nicely, end on a positive note (versus waiting for them to start fighting).
Talk to them before they play and ask them how they are going to get along and what they will do if they have a disagreement.
Or set them up with parallel activities in which they are by each other but not reliant on each other in play.
Teach conflict management skills
Children know they need to get along. And they will if they can. While we talk until we’re blue in the face, if they aren’t getting along, they likely don’t have the skills. We need to teach them. Siblings who have explicitly learned how to manage conflict constructively are more successful than those who aren’t.
Therefore, we want to not only talk about the skills, such as listening to each other’s point of view and then brainstorming solutions, but we also need to set up practice sessions to use these skills (and experience that they actually can work better for them than fighting). These skills will benefit them now and in the future.
Have regular family meetings
These are great opportunities for you and your children to talk through issues, to express how they are feeling, and brainstorm ways to handle future conflict.
Sibling love jar
Catch your children being good! Whenever you see them getting along, praise them. And be specific. “Hey you two, I love how you are working together and helping each other build that tower.”
Consider having a sibling love jar where they can earn tokens for getting along that they can cash in for something later.
Check out this article for more ideas on how to set this up.
DO love for each child
It is important to spend one-on-one time with each child. Make sure you do things they enjoy. Schedule a regular time.
In our house we started to have a date night each month with each child on the date of their birthday (e.g., the 14th of every month) so we always know to keep that night free.
Model good problem-solving behaviour
Children learn everything from their parents, including how to solve conflicts. If you lose your cool when you’re upset, chances are they will too.
Watch how you settle conflicts with others. Do you yell? Storm off? Or calmly discuss the situation? Debrief disagreements you had with others at the end of the day and how you handled it. Model how you handle disagreements with other family members using the behaviours you want your children to use.
Still Caught in the Heat of the Moment?
While we definitely want to be proactive and work on helping your children improve their relationships, there will be times we will need to react. Here are tips on how to be successful in the heat of the moment:
Identify your red-line, or non-negotiables
This is where you will for sure step in, such as if there is any physical aggression. Be sure to let your children know the consequences of what will happen if they do cross this redline.
Create a plan (and don’t get involved!)
Ideally, create the plan with your kids. They need to understand what the behavioural expectations are when they have a disagreement and that you will not be stepping in. Teaching them the importance of managing difficulties themselves is important.
Here is an example plan. First, be sure to brainstorm ideas they can do to manage the situation. Then, in a disagreement with a sibling they can:
- Try two or three three strategies. If they don’t work, then they can
- Ask you for help. You will not respond to any whining, screaming, yelling. You will only respond when they come to you calmly and can tell you the problem, tell you what strategies they tried, and how they could use your help.
Since we only have control over our own behaviours, we can include the things we will do if they choose not to ask for help and continue fighting. For example, in that situation, let them know that you may put on headphones and listen to music until someone comes to ask for help or go for a walk around the block.
Don’t take sides
If you do need to step in, don’t take sides. And, now is not the time to discipline. That comes later when they are calm; otherwise, we are only adding fuel to the fire. Let them know you will discuss the situation with them later once you’ve all had a break.
When you talk later, have them explain the situation objectively and specifically.
We want them to report the situation as an objective observer would and then explain their upset (rather than letting them getting into a tattling game based on subjective perceptions).
For example, “I was playing Lego and Suzie came in and kicked it over. I am really frustrated because it took me all morning to build that Lego.” You can then validate their upset (versus remaining stuck on the sibling’s behaviour) and then ask how you can help them now. Doing so gives them the opportunity to feel heard, understood, and cared for. If necessary (e.g., if they responded aggressively to their sibling), you can then ask them what they think about how they responded and what they think an appropriate consequence or follow-up would be. Still remain empathetic during this time.
The most effective way to communicate with our children is to listen to each of them. Ideally separately at first. Avoid jumping in right away with lectures, explanations, or consequences. Your kids are likely very smart and already know everything you are going to say.
Give them the space to share their feelings without judgment or interruption. And, no matter what they say (even if they have completely mis-perceived the situation), validate their feelings. If you’re stuck, you can repeat back what they say in a genuinely caring way. For instance, “Oh man, your sister always tries to annoy you, no wonder you’re frustrated!”
By listening, they feel heard. And when they feel heard, they will perceive you as being fair. And then they will be open to moving forward with a plan.