Sibling rivalry - how to go from foe to friend

There will be times when you’re less of a parent and more of a referee in your kids’ ongoing quest for supremacy over their sibling. Is there anything you can do to help them get on with each other?

When you introduce your sweet newborn to his big brother or sister you’ll do it with a song in your heart, happily imagining a sibling relationship straight out of The Waltons. And your firstborn probably will be enchanted and intrigued by the new arrival… for about a day and a half.

After that, it’s likely that their opinion will range from “why does he cry so much?” to “can we send him back?” with brief spells of “leave my stuff alone” and “get out of my room!”

And as far as the baby of the family goes, they may think they're second-best and feel pretty jealous that their big brother or sister got there first, can climb that tree, is allowed to stay up later and so on. So what can you do to end the constant battles and build lasting bonds?

Why do they fight?

It’s simple: they’re different! Kids at different ages are at different developmental levels, and this affects the way they relate to each other. It also means they may have very different needs when it comes to you. They’re also likely to have different personalities and temperaments. Add a liberal sprinkling of the jealousy that’s bound to occur as they vie for your attention, and there you have it.

Baby vs toddler

The two-year age gap tends to be the norm and pits baby against toddler. Your baby is curious and, once he gets on the move, nothing is sacred - least of all your toddler’s toys. In walks your toddler, who is just reaching the assertive stage but lacks the communication skills to express her displeasure verbally. At the least you’ll have one crying baby protesting the forcible removal of the new plaything; at worst, a category 5 toddler tantrum.

Pre-schooler vs schoolchild

Your pre-schooler will probably seethe as they're marched off to bed while their elder sibling gets to stay up and watch TV – not a day will go past without a chorus of “it’s not fair!” ringing through the house. In turn, your tween is likely to resent what they perceive as favouritism as you make allowances for the baby of the family but expect them to act their age.

Teen vs tween

Your tween is likely to follow the older sibling around desperate for some attention, wanting to be like them, dress like them, talk like them, get to do all the cool things they do. On the other hand, your teen wants to flex their independence and may thoroughly resent having to spend time with a younger brother or sister, much less helping you out by entertaining them and setting a good example.

Help peace break out

Bring your kids closer together by taking a close look at how you relate to them and deal with your own disagreements, as well as creating an atmosphere that encourages sibling revelry instead of triggering sibling squabbles.

Fight right

Your kids are influenced by what you say and do in every aspect of their lives. If they see you explode if something doesn’t go right for you, they’re likely to react that way themselves. Set a good example by facing up to problems calmly and constructively – and praise them when you see them sorting out their differences in the same way.

Avoid labels
If there’s one thing guaranteed to sow the seeds of resentment between your kids, it’s comparisons. You may well think introducing your oldest as ‘the clever one’ is perfectly harmless – but you’ll end up with one kid who’s convinced that being the clever one means they're not the attractive one, and another who thinks they're not as smart. On the same note, avoid making statements such as “why can’t you do something the first time I ask, like your brother does?” which could breed an inferiority complex.

Explain yourself
Kids at different developmental levels and different ages have to be treated differently – there’s no way around it. You can’t let your five-year-old sit up till 9pm watching TV. But when you’re explaining why, keep it clear and neutral to deflect any notion of preferential treatment: “Ella gets to stay up later because she’s bigger and she doesn’t get as tired as you.”

Celebrate siblings
Remind your kids just how great it is to have an older brother or sister and vice versa; you could remind them how the other one always gets upset if their brother or sister is hurt or ill; about how they always have someone there to play with and talk to. Tell them about your own siblings, if you have them, and concentrate on the fun times you had together as kids and how they’re still always there for you if you need a friend.

If you’re an only child, perhaps you could tell them tales of a friend’s older sibling you might have looked up to when you were young. Reinforce the notion of sibling teamwork by doing activities together: maybe a puzzle or a board game one night a week.

Point out privileges
If your younger child is whining about not getting to do the things their elder sibling does, remind them about some of the things they get to do that the elder one doesn’t – for example, you spend a lot of time with them during the day while big bro has to go to school. It might also help to give your younger child some special things they alone get to do to make them feel special: they could get involved in a toddler music group or other activity so they feel they're doing just as many interesting things as their older sibling.

Don’t play favourites
Sometimes you may well feel closer to one of your children, maybe because they’re younger and more vulnerable or maybe because they're just easier to get along with generally. You may subconsciously favour your older child, introducing them to visitors or friends first and chatting to them more because they have more to say and have reached the stage where you can have an intelligent conversation with them.

Avoid this if you can – it may result in your younger child feeling left out. Work against it by including your younger child in conversations and activities with the older sibling: if big brother is practicing his recorder for school, get the younger child in on the act with a musical instrument of their own; if you’re helping the elder child with a school project, break out the craft box and let the younger one create something of their own as you work. It’ll distract them from starting arguments because they're bored and want attention.

Plan in special time
This is particularly important if your older child is still fairly young and having to get used to a new baby in the house. Don’t forget: they've had you all to themselves for several years and now have to share you for the first time. New babies take up a lot of time and if you start to miss out on the special things you and your older child did together before baby came on the scene, they’ll feel rejected and jealous.

Have alone time with your older child while the baby or toddler sibling naps; take your tween or teen shopping, to the park or to see a film while dad, or another relative or friend, watches your younger child.

Respect your kids’ space

It’s tempting to give into a whining younger child if they're clamouring to play on his big sister’s computer or hammering on her bedroom door because he wants to be involved in what she’s doing. Trouble is that your older child’s pile of ‘stuff’ is probably of vital importance to her and your younger child is likely to destroy it.  Give your older child space and let them have their privacy – if your children have to share a room, try to set it up so each child has their own distinctive area (a screen is a useful boundary). Forcing them to play with each other and share their things will lead to resentment – encourage them to do it instead.

Don’t expect older kids to parent
Once your older child reaches a sensible age, they can help out with a kid brother or sister – but don’t overdo it. You’re still the parent and while it’s fine to ask an older sibling to keep any eye on what the younger one is up to while you get the dinner ready, or maybe monitor them while they do their chores, you shouldn’t be involving them in discipline or any other parental responsibilities.

Stay neutral
When your kids fight it can be difficult to pinpoint who started the mayhem. Imposing house rules can help you avoid taking sides – having a blanket no hitting, no name-calling, no teasing, no tale-telling policy means you’re well within your rights to discipline them both even if they’re trying to shift the blame onto each other.

The upside of anger

There’s always a silver lining, and as long as no blood is drawn there are benefits to all that bickering. When your children square off against each other they’re learning to stand up for themselves and fight for what they believe is right. And having to work out solutions is an important lesson in learning to co-operate with others and work out a compromise if they can’t agree. 


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