How To Deal With Sibling Rivalry August 09 2010

This article originally appeared as a guest post on Zoodles, a family-friendly website.

If you have more than one child, the following strategies may help everyone in your home deal with sibling rivalry.

Embrace the Inevitable

Your kids will fight with you and with each other. They will alternate between playing like the best of friends and yelling at each other over who got the biggest piece of the candy bar that they had to share. And it can happen within moments.

The nice part about this kind of conflict is that it’s totally normal. Competition between siblings for attention from parents and others is not enjoyable, but developmentally appropriate behavior.

Anticipate Changing Needs

Understanding the foundational reasons for sibling rivalry can help increase the patience required to deal with it. Sibling rivalry develops for a variety of reasons.

• Age Differences – unless you have a set of multiples, your kids are different ages with varying developmental needs and skills. This can create questions about why older children in your family have more independence or get certain privileges and younger kids in your family don’t.

• Personality Differences – my boys are totally opposite in every way when it comes to personality characteristics. The oldest is cautious and the youngest is a risk-taker. The oldest likes to plan out everything, and the youngest is go-with-the-flow. In our family, this can be wonderful and also the greatest source of fighting.

• Developmental Differences – My boys are three years apart, which means they have a variety of different needs and require different parenting. My oldest receives an allowance that he splits into sharing, saving and spending, and this allows him to buy toys and candy with his own money. This can be hard for the youngest, who doesn’t have a big allowance because he’s not yet ready for the responsibilities that go along with it.

Set Up Ground Rules

Since kids will fight for a variety of reasons, they need a collection of tools to be able to fight well. I like to teach my kids the following strategies to help the process along and prevent physical or emotional injury.

• “I feel” messages – set up a sentence that can be used anytime where kids learn how to share their feeling about an event. The sentence I use is “When you _______________, I feel ______________________.”

• Quiet Time – it’s difficult to come to a resolution when emotions are high. Encourage kids to time themselves out when they’re too angry to talk, and come back to resolve the problem after calming down (I’ve found this takes ten to twenty minutes).

• Make a Deal – if there’s something that one child wants, chances are good that there’s something the other one wants as well. Talking about the wants or needs of each person can help work out an arrangement that benefits both children.

• Apologize and Be Done – I remind my kids that holding a grudge works for no one. Once the problem has been discussed, apologies and forgiveness need to be shared. The situation is then officially over.

When to Get Involved

I try not to involve myself in my kids’ fights. This doesn’t mean that I sit by and let them say or do anything they want to each other. Instead, I listen and wait. Sometimes all they need is a little coaching, so I may give them a verbal cue, like “When you-“ which reminds them of the “I feel” strategy. If emotions run high, I may enforce a time out for all parties involved for about fifteen minutes. Usually my kids are ready to talk it out after some quiet time.

If kids really struggle with working out a problem, it helps to ask them questions. Start with one person at a time, stating that each person will get a turn and requiring absolutely no interruptions.

Ask for basics – what happened? Who was involved? How do you feel? What do you want or need right now? Move on to the next person, asking the same questions. By the end of this process, the kids can move on to actually solving the problem – all you’ve done is help clarify the situation for them.

Employing these strategies to deal with sibling rivalry take extra time and effort to begin with, but benefit everyone in your home for years to come.