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What causes Sibling Rivalry and what to do about it

All parents want their kids to get along. Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone was happy all the time and they just loved playing together without any conflict? But the reality is that we have kids who scream "mum, he's looking out MY window", "stop looking at me", "he is breathing loud to annoy me". The truth is we can't expect kids to get along all the time just because they are related. Adults don't get along all the time and we have a choice about who we spend time with and share our lives with. Kids often have to share a room, toys, bathroom and their parent's time, and they have no say in it. When we think of it like that it is no wonder that there is sibling rivalry.

So is sibling rivalry just something that we should expect and put up with? Well, it is inevitable but it isn't all bad. What better place to learn to negotiate and manage conflict than in a family that will love you. Much better for kids to learn how to deal with conflict in the home than in the playground or worse as an adult. If we see sibling rivalry as an opportunity to learn skills that will help them in the future then is seems far less scary. Having said that, we don't just leave them to "fight it out", that's definitely not a skill you want them to carry on to adulthood. But as we guide them in how to manage the conflict in a productive way rather than shutting it down, they will learn through it.

Causes of sibling rivalry

Jealousy: One of the main causes of sibling rivalry is due to children wanting their parent's attention and being jealous when the other child seems to be getting more attention. This is a fact that can feel exhausting for parents to read. Who has time to give them more attention? As parents we can feel that our kids are already taking up all of our time, how can they want more? But if you think about what the cause of the fights are there is usually some sort of jealousy there. Fighting over who sits next to you, or who does something first or always picking up what the other is doing wrong so that the other child "gets in trouble". This jealousy all comes from wanting to be seen as better than the other.

The good new is that helping our kids feel connected with us and that they are getting the attention they need, doesn't have to take a long time, but it does need to be focused attention. Even just 10-15min of one on one time doing something that is directed by your child is enough for them to feel as though you have given them what they need. This means they don't feel like they have to fight for it. Ideally you would aim to spend this time with each child every day. This isn't always possible especially in large families. I have worked with families who allowed each child to stay up a little later one night a week to have some special time. Each child had one night that was special for them. Even if you don't do this it can help to label a special time. By doing this the child knows that this time was especially for them and not just incidental. But the important thing is that you recognise when you child it acting as though they are jealous and not just difficult. Rather than punishing the child and sending them away (which will only make the behaviour worse), try to make some one on one time and see if the behaviour improves.

Boredom: Sometimes sibling rivalry is a matter of boredom and the fighting is simply to get some stimulation. Have you ever noticed when you have to go on a long drive, that is when one kids has to keep touching the other, or stare at them or anything just to get a reaction? Or on the weekend when everyone is home, one kid just has to keep annoying the other? Obviously we can't allow this to continue but it can help to see what the cause is and do something about that. Be prepared for long trips and have your kids work out what they want to do. This is a time when screens are helpful and that is not something that I say often, but you are restricted in a car or travelling. Have other options too so that you aren't completely reliant on screens. If it is at home, then you might need to step in with some activities that the kids can do separately or something the whole family can do.

Simply Conflict: Sometimes it's just conflict. Nobody gets on all the time, we all have conflict and that's okay. But it is important to deal with conflict in a productive way. Conflict is not always bad it can help us see where things need to change and build the ability to express our needs, but this takes practice.

When we are guiding our kids in how to manage conflict, we don't want to jump in too soon. Hang back and see if they can work things out. If it is escalating or getting physical then you have to step in. But for the most part we want kids to practice this for themselves without relying on you being the umpire all the time.

So, when we do step in and everyone is calm enough to think (this might take a little time apart first), then there are some good points to follow:

Identify the problem: The start of conflict resolution whether you are a child or an adult, is to identify the problem. Young children will need you to say it for them, "it looks like you both want that swing". Try and get them to understand how the other person feels. Have each person say what is upsetting them, if they are too young or can't express it, label it for them, "you are frustrated that they got on the swing before you". When they know what the problem really is and how everyone feels they will have a better chance at brainstorming a solution.

Problem Solving: One great strategy that works with kids, age three and older, is to give them five minutes to conduct their own “meeting” to figure out a plan for how they can solve the problem. Kids respond well to be given responsibility and independence. However explain that you won't be far away and you are able to help if they need you. After they have had a "meeting", they present their solution to you. If it’s acceptable, they can go and continue playing to test if it worked. The idea of this strategy is that in order to keep playing together or have access to a desired toy, they need to work together.

When they come up with an idea they all have to agree on it. If it is something that you don't think is fair or you don't think will work, then talk them through it, "so if you do that, how will your brother feel?", "if you do that, what do you think will happen next?"

Plan ahead: It is always a good idea to practice conflict resolution before it happens. If you children often fight in a particular game, go through some ideas beforehand. Do the "what if's", "what will you do if you both want the same sort of Lego piece?" Make them have a plan first and let them see that when they can't resolve the conflict, it means they won't be having fun. Not that you have to threaten punishment, just that the game will be over.

Sibling rivalry and conflict is not all bad. It is the practice ground for kids to recognise how they are feeling and with the help of their parents, get their needs met. But it is important that we as parents recognise what our children's triggers may be and guide them with how to do this in a way that will ultimately benefit the child.

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