Parents are far too accepting of sibling rivalry; many excuse it. “That’s just how kids are. All brothers and sisters fight.” Many stop trying to deal with it because they don’t know what to do. They hear the endless bickering, whining, and arguing, and just give up, only interfering when one child starts crying or gets physically hurt. Yet parents aren’t helpless. There are steps they can take to eliminate most of the day-to-day struggles between siblings.
The key is getting involved. Parents shouldn’t ignore their children’s rivalry. When kids sense that a parent won’t step in, they often escalate their battles. One boy, who was rarely reprimanded for the way he treated his sister, continually picked on her. Some people believe that paying attention to sibling rivalry only encourages it, because kids argue in order to get attention. However, kids generally put their efforts into seeking positive, rather than negative, attention.
The real root of sibling rivalry is a child’s angry belief that he isn’t being treated fairly, that his sibling is enjoying more parental affection or privileges. He directs his anger toward his sibling rather than his parents because he needs his parents for love and care. He doesn’t want to risk losing their approval. It’s much safer to attack a brother or sister.
A child will feel unfairly treated if his parents say, “Your sister is older, so she gets to stay up later.” A child can easily feel hurt and insecure if his parents say, “You need to practice more than your brother does,” “Let him show you how to throw the ball,” or “Your sister knows how to put that together.” The child being praised will feel entitled to gloat and may start to say, “I know how to draw, and you don’t,” or even repeat his parents’ words, “You don’t know how to do that.” The one being put down will start to resent his sibling.
This presents a dilemma for parents who believe older children should have more privileges. One mother thought her five-year old should stay up later than her three-year-old. This caused great conflicts. The older child teased the younger, and the younger yelled, “I don’t like you!” Eventually, the three-year-old fussed so long at bedtime that he was awake as long as his sister anyway.
If an older child is treated as bigger and better than a younger sibling, the younger will fight for the privileges his sibling enjoys. He’ll feel helpless, unequal, and powerless to change what he sees as an unfair situation, and he’ll take those feelings out on his sibling.
Many parents can remember their own similar feelings of resentment toward a brother or sister, yet they continue to treat children as they once hated being treated. A better alternative to granting privileges by age is to treat kids equally, and make simple and practical allowances for differences in size, maturity, and physical development.
Sibling rivalry may escalate or develop if a new baby is born. A former “only child” will face the shock of sharing his parents for the first time. A pair of siblings will find their positions in the family altered by the baby’s arrival. The middle child, in particular, may feel left out. Parents can ease their older children’s adjustment by giving them extra attention and acknowledging their feelings. “It’s hard getting used to a new baby, isn’t it?”