This weekend, my children were fighting. I know, shocker, the Wonnacott children fight? I was getting the baby breakfast and listening as my two oldest were verbally tormenting each other. I was attempting to stay out of it and let them work it out. But soon, I could see that things were quickly deteriorating; one child was now making the other child cry by copying everything the other said. One child pleaded to me, “mom make her stop!” At that point, I said “enough.” I told them that they were both forbidden to say another word to each other or suffer the loss of a privilege. It wasn’t exactly a psychologically sound parenting moment; the idea just flew out of mouth before I gave it a lot of thought. Frankly, I just wanted them to stop and give me a moment of peace from the bickering. The results however, were completely and totally unexpected. They both retreated to their respective rooms and spent hours apart. Then gradually, I started hearing the phrases, “What’s so-and-so doing?” “I miss him.” “Can’t I just talk to him?” “I just want to apologize.” I was blown away. Distance had made the heart grow fonder. When they were finally allowed to speak to each other again, the apologies were heartfelt and tender. It was like the reuniting of old friends.
Sibling rivalry is very common. In fact, research suggests 64% of school-aged siblings fight “sometimes or often.” The key is what to do to make sure it doesn’t go too far, while maintaining some semblance of peace in your home.
Is there value in sibling rivalry?
Yes. There are important social skills learned from siblings, even when they are fighting. You learn how to stand up for yourself, how to take an insult and dish one, what is funny or not, what behaviors are “gross,” etc. It is safer to make a socially embarrassing mistake at home (like farting, picking your nose, wearing a terrible outfit) and being corrected by a sibling, then to make them in front of peers. The key is balancing. You want to allow children to build resilience, but never feel like love is compromised.
- Corporal punishment (spanking) makes rivalry worse.
- Children spaced more than 4 years apart have less conflict (they spend less time together).
- A child’s perception of “favoritism” is a major contributing factor to sibling rivalry (especially as it relates to time spent with a particular child, which may be difficult if one child has special needs).
Tips to help
- Providing equal “alone time” with each child helps. When feelings of jealousy arise, remind the jealous child of time spent with just him/her.
- Prevent fighting whenever possible. Avoid situations that result in fighting (e.g., if certain kids always fight when they sit next to each other in the car, decide ahead to assign seats apart from each other).
- Promote good feelings. Reinforce any good deeds done on behalf of siblings (“Wasn’t it nice of Johnny to unload the dishwasher for you.”)
- Encourage activities that require cooperation (e.g., building a fort, making a puzzle).
- Try to steer clear of competitive games where there is a winner and a looser (or modify the game to balance out age inequalities—change cards or turn the board game every few moves).
- Have family meetings to teach and address problems. At the Wonnacott household, this happens every Monday night. The important thing is to make sure that grievances are addressed with love, everyone participates, and everyone gets heard.
- Ignore the small things. Intervene if things deteriorate or are physical. Never tolerate hitting among siblings.
- Don’t take sides (generally it isn’t worth figuring out who started it.)
- Help children resolve quarrels lovingly. The Wonnacott children have heard the phrase, “you are each other’s best friends” a million times.
My siblings are some of my greatest friends (and certainly my go-to people). When my mom told me they would be my friends as adults (after having just fought as children), I rolled my eyes at her comment. Turns out, mom knew a thing or two. She’s a genius.