Sibling Rivalry: Strategies for Parents
The thought of the subject of sibling rivalry causes many parents a quick pain right in their heart. The dilemma of dealing with children who are constantly bickering can be one of the most frustrating and discouraging parts of parenting. On the other hand, the joy associated with watching brothers and sisters getting along, playing and encouraging one another can be one of the most rewarding.
The truth is, we don’t choose our siblings, our children or our parents. God does that. In the end, we are blessed with (or stuck with) the personalities of each without any escape from the fact that these are our relatives… and will be as long as we are on this earth. Sounds a bit glum. But, think about this. We have an opportunity to learn how to get along with anyone with the experiences we gain from dealing with those in our own families. So, whether we have awesome relationships with those who are members of our clan, or if we have challenges in that area, the experience and insight we can glean from our interactions with them is a true blessing.
Remember the three things that every child should know that allow for effective parenting. They must know:
They are loved.
You know what is best for them.
You will make sure what’s best for them is done.
As with any subject we will ever cover in Mentor4Moms, these three points matter and are the basis for effective parenting and a good relationship with your child. If any one of these is missing, the outcome of the methods presented will not work nearly as well.
Looking at the first of these three… they know they are loved… this is one of the basics for squelching sibling rivalry. Let’s examine the word “rivalry”. The definition is as follows:
Rivalry – noun – competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.
One of the main objectives that siblings compete over is the attention of their parents. Especially little children. As they get older, the competition will continue, grow, and will lead to trying to outdo each other for the admiration or attention of others outside the family.
A New Baby
You have no doubt heard of situations, or maybe even experienced yourself, where a child is threatened by the birth of a little brother or sister. Even the most loving parents who believe they have shown complete acceptance of their oldest child may be worried about how the previously only child will greet a new baby in the family.
When there is a problem in this area, it is often associated with one of the most common mistakes parents make. Placing their child at the center of their own world. Think about it. If a child is placed as the sun is to the earth and all the planets, and then suddenly another “sun” appears and all those planets start to revolve around the new “life-giving star”, is it any wonder why the fading sphere doesn’t want to bask in its glow?
Every child needs to know they are loved, completely and unconditionally. But, that is not the same as being the center of their parent’s whole world. When this damaging message is relayed to a child, it skews their outlook on the world and on the family. They see things from a perspective of entitlement and their confidence is gained from a false sense of self-importance rather than from their own accomplishments. And, it causes a real and deep-seated competition with anyone who would come in and disrupt their supreme position.
So, the first strategy to combat this potential disaster would be to implement ways to help your child understand his true place in the world… and in your family. For the sake of writing, I am going to refer to a boy. He must know he is loved, accepted, embraced, supported and encouraged. But, he must also recognize others deserve the same. He must realize he is not the center of your world, but instead a very important part of it. He must realize that love is something we ALL spread around and it is not all just directed at him.
To enact this mindset in him, try these things as age appropriateness allows.
Make time for yourself and your spouse apart from your child daily.
Have a trusted person babysit once a week while you go somewhere else.
Take your child to places that you want to go and not just where they want to go.
Do not stop everything whenever your child calls. Make them wait.
Do not allow them to elicit sympathy from you through manipulation.
Make sure your child serves others inside and outside of the family.
Limit birthday festivities and gifts.
Allow them to fail and learn from their mistakes.
Encourage them to praise others and do so often in front of them and with them.
Make chores a priority in their daily life.
All these things will help your child see they are not the center of the world. They are a part of it and are capable, valuable and able to be an encourager and helper for others. When a new baby comes along, they will see this as another opportunity to help! Another partner to work with them in this life! A person they can play with when Mom and Dad are away!
In other words, the way to avoid sibling rivalry with a new baby is to set their mind to the idea that this new child is an addition to the love in the family rather than a competitor for it.
When the new baby arrives, encourage your older child to be a part of their care. Give them a “Big Brother” or “Big Sister” t-shirt. Have them bring you things, take diapers to the trash for you, choose the toys, foods or clothing the new baby will wear, etc. Give them praise for their help and let them know how much you appreciate them being a good older sibling.
Anything you can do to include them in the care of their new sibling will help to grow the relationship.
Bickering Among Young Children
If you have little ones who bicker, I’m sure your heart is beating just a little bit faster to even read the title words of this section! This can be SO frustrating! I’ve experienced it myself and there is no greater annoyance than two year olds acting like two year olds… or 10 year olds acting like two year olds!
No matter how much siblings love and care about each other, there are times they bicker. We are all human and it happens. Our weaknesses come out. We fall short of being patient and loving and we do not act in appropriate ways.
There is also a little devil inside of some of your children. (No, not literally!) That little voice that says, “I just want to get a reaction. If I do this… my sister will react!” Then, the poking, or prodding, or tripping, or hitting will begin. It is an H-E-double toothpick for a busy mom, that’s for sure!
What needs to be done to stop this? There are many ideas and methods and the best thing to do is see what works best for you and your children. Sometimes one thing will work with one child and will not work with another, so some experimentation is in order.
The main thing that helps in my view is making sure your child understands they have power. They have the power to do good, and the power to do evil. These are their choices. The reaction and relationship they build with their sibling is a result of how they use that power.
If your child has done something to a sibling and has made them cry, take your child to the sibling and look at their brother or sister in the face. Don’t be angry, but point out how they have used their power in an evil way to cause pain and sorrow on someone else. Show them the tears, the sad look, the angry face or the broken spirit by having them look carefully. Tell them THEY DID THIS.
Explain how they have used their power for evil and they must recognize it. How does this make them feel? Is there any good in it for them or for their sibling? And, remind them they have also hurt you. You have had to stop your day to deal with the evil they caused and they have hurt one of your children.
Then, have them figure out a way to change the situation. Have them think about what they can do to make it better. Praise them as they find an answer and implement it.
On the other hand, when they have done something good and shown love and encouragement to a sibling, make sure to take the time to do the same thing! Have them look at their sibling, see their joy, see their smile, and tell them THEY DID THIS!
Of course, this cannot be done every time. One of the prime ideas of M4M is that moms should not struggle. You should be able to set up this idea by doing it once or twice, and then remind them of it when the time comes that another argument has happened.
Here are some ideas for quick solutions to bickering children:
Have them memorize Ephesians 4:29 – “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good, to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.” Make them repeat it whenever bickering begins.
Have them cover their own mouth for a set period of time as soon as they say a contentious word to their sibling. Be consistent.
Have them go to their room, sit on their bed, and come up with three good things to say about their brother or sister. They must have all three ready to say before they return to you.
Make them sit and hold hands until they work out their differences.
Make them both go to a room and come back together with a happy spirit, arms around each other and smiling before they can do anything else for the day. If they don’t do this in a reasonable amount time, tell them you will take care of it and make sure they know this will not be pleasant.
Never Create Competition
Parents sometimes believe they will inspire one child by pointing out the great character qualities in another. This is far from true. I’m sure you have heard the phrase, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” This attitude is a killer to sibling relationships. It also can be a life-long discouragement for the focus of the “loser” in the scenario. As a parent, you should never use one sibling as an example of good … or of evil… to the other sibling as a motivator for their own behavior. This creates the very competition you are trying to get rid of by dealing with sibling rivalry. It promotes family division rather than family unity.
It is important to encourage your children to find the good in each other, but it is not a good idea for you to be the one to find it in order to use it as a tool. Your job is to facilitate and support your children to find good in each other. And, to be a PART of pointing it out for the sake of uplifting the one doing the good job. NOT to use it as a tool to try to motivate the other by putting them down with it.
You want your children to feel a sense of happiness, contentment, friendship and love when thinking of their sibling. If you are putting into their mind the idea that their brother or sister is a competitor for the “best child award”, you are setting up a scenario where the child’s first reaction to the thought of their sibling is a negative one. This will never cure the problem of sibling rivalry, but only make the problem grow all the bigger.
Don’t Look for Someone to Blame
As a parent, it is important to remember that every argument takes two people. It is rare that the entire situation is the fault of one child. “It takes two to tango” and setting the blame on one of them further creates the rivalry you are working to dispel.
Instead, when you are addressing a problem, ask the children what they did to contribute to the problem. If they start to explain what the other child did, remind them that you asked what THEY did. You will ask their sibling in a minute their part of the issue.
Most of the time, you can avoid this anyway by using some of the “quick solutions for bickering children” we already discussed. But, there are times when you will need to step in and listen to what has been going on. In that case, don’t lay all of the blame on one child. Let them each take responsibility for their part and remedy it together.
Build Their Relationship
Children learn well when they can actually see something with their eyes. They can experience it through their senses. Explain to your child that as they grow, they are building something. They are building up a life-long relationship. Let them know their brother and sister can be their life-long friend. No matter what happens, they will always be siblings.
How can you let them experience this visually? How can they hear it? Feel it? Touch it?
Here are some ideas to help them watch their relationships grow:
1. Get a lego set or a bunch of lego blocks. Each day, ask them if they built their relationship today or did they hurt it? Have the blocks in a bucket or tub. Whenever they are doing something nice together, stop them at an appropriate time and tell them they can get one or two blocks and build their project. It can be a big wall, or a set that has a particular theme. For little ones, just a big wall going higher and higher (set against a real wall so it won’t fall down!). When it reaches a certain point, give them a reward. (A puzzle can also be used!)
If they start to bicker, tell them they will have to take a block off the project and return it to the tub.They have just hurt their relationship.Let them know they have to repair the relationship now so they can rebuild it.
2. Get a board game like “CandyLand” and set it up somewhere that it cannot be disturbed. When they are kind and helpful to each other, let them move their pieces together down the path. When they reach the end, they each get a reward! They must both reach the end though and help each other make it. When they bicker, they must move back. (This can also be done with a laminated poster and dry erase marker that has a drawing of a path with rewards along the way.)
3. Make a bunch of pieces of paper with different helpful jobs on each. Put them in a jar. Let them choose one thing each day to help their sibling and make it exciting and fun! For instance, make your siblings bed today and then give them a hug. Or, let your sibling choose a game that you will play together, etc. Praise them as they do what is on the paper and make it an uplifting time of each day.
Remind them often that they are best friends. Talk to them about how best friends treat each other. What do they do together? How do they talk to each other? When they are bickering, say, “Is that how a best friend behaves? You need to remember you should treat your best friend special.”
Also, when something good happens to their brother or sister, encourage them to compliment them and share in their joy. Have them be a part of the building up of each other and help them feel happiness at the accomplishments of others.
NEVER Allow Physical Altercations
There is definitely a difference between bickering and fighting. Physical fighting should NEVER be allowed under any circumstances. I have heard of, what I consider completely insane and irresponsible parents, encouraging their children to fight with each other to work out their differences. This is completely unacceptable and abusive.
Physical altercations include pinching, hitting, pushing, kicking or any other physical act of violence in anger. A child should never be allowed to do anything like this to their sibling or anyone else. (Exception: self-defense when dealing with a bully at school!) If you become aware of your child ever dealing with conflict in a physical way, this should be immediately punished no matter the reason.
The reason should be taken into consideration though, and dealt with as necessary. But the punishment should be quick and sure. Children should learn from a very early age that fighting is not allowed and is unacceptable.
A Cry for Attention
Sometimes, sibling rivalry isn’t about their relationship at all, like I alluded to in the first part of this session. Sometimes, it is about their own frustrations with themselves or with the amount of attention they are receiving from their parents.
Make sure you are having eye to eye contact with your children individually every day. Let them know they matter to you and that you will be there for them. If there is a sibling conflict, talk about it with them when you are sitting down and discussing lots of other issues. Give them your time. Even a five or ten minute private conversation with your child each day can go a long way in making them feel important to you and help their relationship with their siblings and with others.
Take each child with you alone even if it is just a trip to the store or on errands. Stop for lunch or an ice cream and let them know you enjoy their company. The more you let your children know they mean a lot to you, the less they will feel the need to one-up their brother or sister. They will have confidence and contentment about their place in your heart.
A common frustration for parents is the trouble of tattling. The best advice to be given about this is to develop your parental discernment so that you will be able to immediately tell whether the offending child is actually giving you necessary information for the purpose of correcting behavior that could physically harm them, others, or damage property…. Or whether the purpose of the relaying of information is to get their sibling in trouble.
The difference between tattling and telling is in the motivation. You, as a parent, will need to be able to discern which is happening at any given moment. Their motivation, if pure, should be to inform you of something to help their sibling learn or prevent them from harming others. If that is not their motivation, it is tattling.
A rather effective weapon in the war of sibling rivalry is tattling. Remember your job is to help them build up their relationship, so do not allow yourself to be used as a weapon of division. Instead, take the time to teach your children that tattling tears down the relationship. Let them know you will not be a part of that.
A few tell-tale signs of tattling are a sing-song voice, a smirky smile, or a happy attitude about telling you something that their sibling is doing wrong. Right away, you should be able to discern that this is a tattling session. Another sign is to ask them if they discussed this issue with their sibling before coming to tell you about it. If they didn’t, they likely are looking to get their brother or sister in trouble.
Teach them to approach their sibling and discuss the matter. To encourage each other to do the right thing and work out their differences. If there is a fear of physical harm or property damage because their sibling will not listen to them, then teach them it is ok to talk to you with the motivation at heart to prevent this. Then they will be coming to you out of sincere concern.
A Family Working Together
Another great way for your children to see each other as partners in this world rather than competitors is to create a family project where they have to work together to accomplish it. This can be an on-going project done throughout the years, or it can be a series of different projects that come to a conclusion each time.
I’m sure you have heard the phrase, “Busy hands make happy hearts”. It’s true. If your children are working together, they tend to want to get along more for the sake of accomplishment. They know they need each other to make the project succeed.
For instance, our family sings together. We worked hard when they were young practicing and creating entertaining shows that we would perform for various events. All of us did this together. We all had to cooperate to make the show a success. We still sing together today!
Something as simple as working on a family morning worship to present to the church, working to clear the leaves from a neighbor’s yard, or making a video to share on social media can all be fun ways to work together.
Talking about the strengths of each other and how each member of the family can contribute to the outcome can give your children a sense of cooperation and also help them recognize the good in each other. It helps them respect the talents and abilities of others in their family too.
In the end, the main points of tackling the difficult problem is sibling rivalry are these.
Make sure they know they are loved.
Help them recognize they are not the center of the world.
Give them a purpose in the life of their sibling.
Encourage them to build their relationship
Help them respect the talents and abilities of others.
Instilling these ideas in your child will help them overcome their urge to bicker and will help them in many areas of their life as well.
Don’t give up. Your children WILL be grown and some of the bickering is just the immaturity of childhood that you must help them grow out of with your instruction and patience. Moms, you can do this!