I am an only child. Sibling rivalry was something I heard about and watched on television, not something I experienced in real life. I had fanciful ideas of living in harmony with a built-in forever friend, a bestie for life. Due in part to my limited experience with sibling relationships, and also in part to my idealistic nature, I imagined my children would walk hand-in-hand through life, giggling together all along the way.
Then I actually had two sons. My firstborn ignored the very existence of his baby brother for all of eight months. It became apparent to me that a positive sibling relationship wasn’t something that was just going to happen; I had to cultivate it. I think parents often tolerate sibling rivalry as “par for the course.” While it is normal for children living under the same roof to have disagreements, we do not have to accept that it is the norm for them to tease, pick at, and constantly provoke each other.
Part of creating positive, peaceful homes and families is teaching our children to love and honor one another.
When it comes to sibling rivalry, we parents often unwittingly spark the fires we spend days and even years trying to extinguish. I’ve certainly made my fair share of mistakes along the way in fueling sibling squabbles, but I’ve also since learned how to create more peace.
Here’s what to avoid based on my own mistakes:
Sometimes we think comparison is a motivator. We believe if we point out how good their brother or sister is at something, they’ll want to aim higher to achieve the same status or result. For some children, this may be true, but either way, comparison fuels rivalry. If it doesn’t serve as a motivator, the child is left feeling inadequate and inferior to her sibling. This fosters feelings of resentment. If it does motivate the child to aim higher, it becomes a competition—a fight for who’s better—and this doesn’t exactly cultivate harmony in the relationship.
Even the sibling who receives the favorable comparison is now entered into a competition to maintain her status.
To avoid the pitfall of comparison, state what you’d like to see happen or stop happening without bringing the other child up in the conversation. Simply, “I’d like to see you work a bit harder at your piano practice,” rather than, “Why don’t you put in the same effort your sister does?”
I unintentionally labeled one of my boys as “the funny one.” It apparently happened rather covertly, simply because I laughed at him more and said things like, “You are so funny!” His brother would always pipe up with, “Hey, am I funny too?” Then he frequently sought to measure up with performances meant to make us laugh just as much. While not a terrible cause for concern, I think it’s wise to watch the labels we stick on our kids and be careful not to label one “the smart one,” or another “the pretty one,” for example.
This gets tricky when celebrating the strengths and accomplishments of our children, which I don’t think should be avoided in order to save the other from feeling inferior. In fact, it’s good for children to learn that there is a time to honor and celebrate others.
I think the key to avoiding the pitfall of labeling is to celebrate each child, making sure they individually feel loved enough and valued enough.
The fix for us was not to stop laughing at my child’s hilariousness, but to find something about his brother that we brought equally to the light and celebrated.
Now for my victories on what did cultivate strong sibling bonds:
Create a team atmosphere
When my children were young, chore charts fueled rivalry as they were forever arguing about who had more check marks. So I created a team chart instead where I encouraged them to tackle chores together to get them done faster.
Weekly family meetings are also beneficial in creating a team atmosphere, because they give everyone equal opportunity to weigh in on family planning, problems, and solutions.
Finally, I made sure they honored and celebrated each other by getting them involved in such activities as cheering at brother’s ball game or attending plays the other was in. Helping to decorate for the other’s birthday party, and encouraging them to speak kind, affirming words to one another set the standard of building up rather than tearing down each other, in addition to asking that they speak their appreciations to each other at our family meetings.
Set clear limits
I believe that all children deserve to feel safe and comfortable in their own homes. Home is a haven where you are celebrated and where you can be yourself, without fear of ridicule or unacceptance.
Unchecked sibling rivalry can make the home feel like anything but a safe haven.
I don’t expect my children to get along perfectly all the time, but I do expect them to avoid resorting to violence, taunting, or name-calling. For sibling disputes, I used the peace table for many months to teach them peaceful conflict resolution skills. I stopped using it when they began saying, “We can work it out peacefully, Mom.”
When one young brother resorted to hitting another, I used a calm-down corner (also known as time-in) to get him calm, then explained that hitting was unacceptable and asked him how he planned to repair the relationship with his brother. I used to tell them that each act of aggression or harsh word spoken was like breaking one of the strings connecting their hearts, and that the string needed to be repaired to keep their relationship strong, because too many broken strings resulted in a broken bond. Then I encouraged apologies in the form of words, written notes, or kind gestures.
All healthy relationships take work, and sibling relationships are no exception. If we are proactive at cultivating harmonious relationships from the start, we can help our children grow up happy together in a peaceful home.
This post was adapted from chapter 6 of Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide.