Best friends one moment, mortal enemies the next. The relationship between children in families can be complicated at the best of times. Despite a parent’s wishes, it is very common for brothers and sisters to argue, fight and annoy each other. Most of the time, parents know that these childish disputes will solve themselves and are perfectly normal.
But what if it seems like your children are constantly in conflict? Where is the line between “normal sibling rivalry” and cause of genuine concern? This article will help to explain the causes of sibling rivalry and give advice to parents about when to intervene.
Getting along, rather than getting upset
Almost all siblings will fight at some point. These can take the form of verbal, physical or psychological clashes.
A definition of sibling rivalry comes from Taylor EJ. Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary:
“Sibling rivalry is defined as competition between siblings for the love, affection, and attention of one or both parents or for other recognition or gain.’
The University of Michigan’s children’s health department lists some of the following causes of sibling rivalries:
- Attempts by children to define themselves as individuals
- Struggles over attention
- Boredom, hunger or tiredness
- Stress, both in themselves and in the family
- Mimicry of problem-solving by parent
Often more than one of these factors are at play at any one time. In addition to this, the family’s composition or dynamic may contribute to or lessen the likelihood of siblings coming into conflict with each other. Experts note for example that birth order can have an influence on sibling relationships. First born children more commonly take part in sibling rivalry, because they had a period where they were likely to the sole recipient of parental love and attention. A sibling is thus an “intruder” who changes the character of the family, often in a manner that is unsatisfactory for the child.
There tends to be more sibling rivalry between children of the same gender. The issue comes from the fact that researchers have found that siblings of the same gender tend to have closer relationships and more communication. This same high level of contact can cause friction. Girls are also slightly more likely to have a rivalry compared to boys.
Negative feelings about siblings can be magnified if there are physical changes. If a child is moved to another room, for example or when grandparents or if other relatives visit and they interact less with the older child. These events can cause a build-up of resentment, anger or fear that leads to sibling rivalry.
Sibling rivalry affects almost all families – one study suggested that it can occur as often as 8 times an hour. However, it has also been noted that it tends to be less intense in larger families than small ones. This is because in larger families, power (and parental attention) is more evenly distributed.
This means that in such large families, each individual may feel that they have a particular – and unique – role to play in the family. In a smaller family, the oldest might have more power (and responsibility), leading to the young children feeling it is “unfair” that they get to be “in charge”. Conversely, younger children may be seen to be more “babied” and “get away” with more than the oldest. However, there is a natural limit to the extent of these benefits, as large families may struggle with providing enough resources, and even where there these are sufficient, a mother can only read so many bedtime stories or a father attend so many football games in a single day. This can result in more fighting to get a share of limited parental attention.
What is important to remember is that even experts find it difficult to determine what the “true” cause of any given rivalry is. This is because there are too many other factors that can differ significantly between families, like economic situation, parental behaviour, the society they grow up in and school achievement. The impact these can have on children makes it difficult to determine what triggers quarrels.
Blended families – the issues of step-siblings
Another situation that is more likely to breed argument is a blended family. Families where step-siblings interact regularly can have rivalry for all of the same reasons as non-blended families. However, they have the added stresses of children not welcoming the “new” children into their families. Adding step-children can disrupt delicate balances of role and power in siblings, for example, and a child who is used to being the oldest and most responsible may suddenly have a brother or sister older than them. The child who is used to being closest to one parent may suddenly have steep competition from a new child.
There is no easy way to prevent these issues. Unlike you and your new partner, your children did not choose to include these new people in their lives. They may not have positive feelings, or see the new siblings as “real” family.
The Parental Stress Centre of Australia suggests taking a calm and measured approach to blending families. Having family meetings, explaining the new situation to all children in an age-appropriate way. Parents should aim to retain an authoritative parenting style, with clear rules and boundaries. They should be careful to provide each child with one-on-one time and regularly have family time if at all possible. Bonds may take some time to form, or may never form between step-siblings. However, parents can make clear that there are limits to acceptable arguments. This can limit stress in the household, and parents should listen to their children but maintain control. Children will look to parents to set out what is allowed and what is not.
What does sibling rivalry look like? What is “normal” behaviour, and what is abnormal?
While all conflict between their children is likely to be either annoying or concerning for parents, it is important to recognise when simple rivalry has become bullying or abuse. Firstly, if you have more than two children, and find that all of your other children consistently gang up against one of the others, this should be addressed.
It is common for some siblings, particularly in very large families, to have better or worse relationships with particular siblings. However, if you find that one of your children is always the target of mockery or physical conflict, it is important that you intervene. A study by the University of Warwick found that siblings that are bullied by their brother or sisters excessively are more likely to develop mental health problems as adults.
A number of warning signs can help a parent identify if competitiveness is getting too intense.
1. – Do they show love as well as fight? If they are close sometimes, and fight at other times this is more suggestive of a normal relationship.
2. – Is it escalating? Did your son slap his brother last week, and this week did his brother react with a higher level of violence? Children may struggle with overreaction and knowing what is proportionate. Parents should intervene if there seems to be a consistently rising level of conflict.
3. – What are the causes of the fights? Can you reduce these without needing to get involved every time? Are they spending too much time physically close, or are they arguing over a particular toy? If it seems that there is no good cause, but the fighting always seems to get worse that may be a warning sign. They may therefore need more alone time or distractions.
4. – Talk. This is the most common and useful tactic in a parent’s tool kit. It is tempting (and very understandable) to demand that all children “Stop fighting, I don’t want to hear who started it, you are all in trouble!”. However, if there is something more serious in play, doing this means you may miss out on important context. If there is a particularly serious incident, take the time to talk to all children involved, separately. You may wish to wait for the initial emotions to cool before doing this. Listen to what your children tell you, and use that to determine your next moves.
How do I stop it?
Regardless of the reasons for squabbles between siblings, most parents just want it to stop. Often coming at the worst possible moments – in public places, when parents are tired or at moments of high stress – a sudden and seemingly inexplicable argument is the last thing a parent needs. As such, it is often the first reaction of a parent to intervene and stop it.
Sometimes this is the right thing to do. For example, if you are somewhere you cannot leave easily and where a continued fight would be inappropriate or distracting. The doctor’s surgery, on public transport or a wedding are places where swift, decisive involvement from a parent is required. Parents should establish “ground rules”, and parent in an authoritative manner, where their children understand what is and is not acceptable. Having clear rules as well as consistent (and proportionate) consequences for breaking them can help avoid the most serious conflict. Apply these rules to all children as equally as you can, as having “one rule for me, another for my sister” is an attitude likely to lead to more conflict.
However, it is also the case that often parents should not get involved in putting a stop to a conflict. If it is relatively low-level and there is no suggestion of escalation, allow your children to sort it out themselves. Experts suggest that dealing these sorts of disputes help children to develop negotiation and problem-solving skills later in life. Your children should know that mum or dad is always there to help if things get too heated, but that they should try and resolve it themselves if they can.
In addition to direct intervention, another key way to reduce the amount of arguments is to ensure that the family atmosphere is calm. Children mimic parental problem solving strategies, so if they see you resolve conflict by yelling, getting physical or arguing, they will do the same. On the other hand, if they see you coolly deal with issues by talking, reasoning and cooperating, they will attempt to do that too. Experts suggest that parents be careful in the way in which they deal with their own issues, as well as taking a balanced approach to dealing with children’s fights.
Younger children, particularly primary-school aged children have a strong sense of what they feel is “fair”, and react strongly when they feel treatment is “unfair”. Parents should help their children understand that “fair” and “equal” are different. They should explain that sometimes one child needs more – attention, food or support for instance. This can reduce feelings of jealousy and subsequent arguments. Be sure to balance this extra attention with time spent with other children later if you can.
Finally, parents can encourage siblings to see themselves as part of a team, rather than as competitors. Give children compliments or guidance as a group – “you are both such great help to mum!” or “you are all playing so well today” as opposed to comparisons. This allows siblings to see each other as sources of help and support, rather than opposition. Make sure that your attention, love and interest is split well between your children. If a recent event – like an exam, or a play for example – has meant you spent a lot of time with one child, take care to give dedicated time to their siblings, one on one. Additionally, spend time as a family as often as you can, linking positive experiences to being “one team” can help foster positive relationships.
It is almost certain that siblings will argue and fight. It is annoying, but usually nothing to worry about if your children have disputes about toys, personal space or other little issues. In fact, these can be helpful learning experiences for them.
However, children rely on their parents to set the rules of engagement. You must set out what can and cannot be argued about, used in an argument or fought over. Parents must also pay attention to patterns of sibling rivalry and ensure that it is not escalating and intervene if needs be.