Sibling rivalry is an extremely sensitive topic for most families. More than anything we want our children to get along, hopefully love and definitely not kill each other. However, any family you talk to will complain about sibling rivalry: how their children constantly fight and how it’s driving them crazy.
Relationships with our siblings are one of the longest human relationships we enjoy: starting from when we are children, teenagers, adults and then growing old together. Siblings may move out of their parents’ home and start their own families, but the bond stays for a lifetime.
All this sounds very rosy (and a little unrealistic) to parents who are struggling with the day-to-day fights of their children.
I feel parenting is a constant journey of learning and self-discovery. As a parent I learn, recognize my mistakes and start anew every day. One thing which I’m extremely proud of is that my children generally get along. Yes, they have the occasional fights and squabbles but I know they turn to each other for help, enjoy each other’s company and also love each other deeply.
How did I accomplish this? By following the principles of “Siblings without Rivalry” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish which basically went against all my desi/South Asian upbringing.
I love the dedication at the start of the book:
“To all the grown-up siblings who still have a hurt child inside them.”
Relationships with our siblings define our personality deeply. It can also leave wounds that continue well into adult life. History, shows, films and dramas are full of tales of sibling rivalry: Cane and Abel, The Crown, Cake, Kapoor & Sons and countless Pakistani dramas about rival sisters, to name a few.
You might start reading the book to improve the relationship between your children but i can assure you that it will bring up many old wounds from your own childhood.
As parents we love our children unconditionally but we also unwillingly seed the plant of sibling rivalry ourselves by comparing our children to each other, putting them into roles and reacting harshly when siblings fight.
Although I recommend everyone to read the book “Siblings without rivalry” themselves (in fact that’s my first advice to parents, as soon they have a second one), I’m discussing the basic principles of the book in this post to help busy parents.
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Sibling Rivalry: How do I help my Children get Along?
Here are a few important lessons to follow if you want to eliminate sibling rivalry in your house:
1. Let all feelings come out:
Sometimes when children fight parents brush aside their feelings and instead urge them to get along. But every child wants their feelings to be acknowledged. This does not mean that you agree with them but that you acknowledge and put their feelings into words. If a child complains that you’re always with the baby, instead of responding with “No, I’m not. Didn’t I just read to you?”, try and say “You don’t like my spending so much time with the baby.” This acknowledges the feelings of the older child.
You can also encourage children to do the same and express in words how they are feeling. Some children find it easier to draw their feelings or write them out.
Also encourage your children to express their feelings safely: “Don’t punch your sister! Tell her how angry you are with words, not fists.”
You can grant a child their wish in fantasy: “Your brother’s behaviour to you can be annoying. You wish he’d check with you before he starts to play his drum when you’re studying.”
Words are powerful! When a child’s feelings are acknowledged, he feels understood and closer to the parent.
2. Refrain from the Perils of Comparison:
The very root of sibling rivalry is the evil of comparison. How can you expect your children to get along when you fuel resentment in them through constantly pitting them against each other.
I know parents do comparisons to encourage and motivate their children but it only does harm!
Rather than telling a child that he is messier or cleaner than their sister, focus individually only on the child: “I love how you have arranged your room so neatly.”
The best way to avoid favourable comparisons is by describing what you see or feel and avoid unfavourable comparisons by describing the problem.
This is explained in the illustration from the book:
You can also describe what needs to be done instead of doing unfavourable comparisons.
Parents feel that they will motivate their children through comparisons but they are actually putting both in a tough spot and deepening sibling rivalry. One child feels inferior and the other feels pressured to be “perfect”, whereas every child deserves to feel normal.
3. You can not love your children equally
Yes, you read right. You can not love your children equally. Even if you try to you will not succeed since every child has unique needs.
Instead try and tell every child that you love them because of them uniquely and not in comparison or equal to their siblings. Also give them time for their unique needs and not equally.
This is best described in the scenarios presented in the book through these pictures below:
4. Do not lock children into roles
How many times have you called your child “the responsible one”, shy, “the trouble maker” etc. Don’t put your children in roles, don’t let someone else do it and especially don’t let children impose a role on themselves.
Each child deserves to live their childhood without the pressure of being the “perfect” child or not live up to their potential, because they have been labelled studious, ugly or a bully.
See the child as a whole, full of potential. Target the action and don’t label the child.
When a child is showing unfavourable behaviour, treat them not as they are but what you hope them to be and then expect that behaviour from them.
Similarly don’t let another child fall into a “victim” role and show them how they are capable to stand for themselves.
This is best shown in the illustration below:
Most families treat the eldest and youngest differently. The eldest is given responsibility, whereas the youngest gets away with a lot. The eldest gets more recognition and the youngest always stays the “baby” of the family.
However, in life our children will need to act as individuals and not the eldest, youngest, middle child etc. Life will not be easy on your youngest and your eldest doesn’t always need to take charge.
Let the eldest in your family experience being the youngest in a group either through the company of cousins or through time with an uncle/aunt. Similarly give your youngest responsibility just like you would to your elder children and let them take on the burden of being a leader.
5. What to do when children fight?
When children fight it hits all the wrong buttons for parents and they resort to shaming, labeling and comparisons.
So what should be the correct response?
First of all if it is normal bickering, ignore and do not intervene. After all the objective of successful parenting is for children to resolve issues by themselves.
If the situation heats up, adult intervention can be helpful. Describe the situation and reflect each child’s point of view. Now encourage them to come up with a solution. You will be amazed at their creativity in problem solving.
Do not take sides. Do not let anyone hurt the other and be sure to remind them of the ground rules and express themselves in words.
Separate them if needed but show your confidence in them finding a solution together.
The illustration below from the book is a great example of how to resolve issues when the children are fighting.
Sibling Rivalry Overview
If as a parent you are feeling overwhelmed with all this information about sibling rivalry, it’s OK. I’m adding a cheat sheet below with a summary of all the information I discussed.
Remember that children are extremely forgiving and every day is a new day. Start small with each of these suggestions and you will see the difference in your home.
And if all this text was too much for you, here is a video!