Sibling relationships set the tone for relationship skills, social learning, and mental health later in life. Regardless of if they are overall good or bad relationships, they are also a breeding ground for conflict.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 80% of American children grow up with at least one sibling, and are more likely to have siblings than a father in the home during childhood. Sibling relationships are important, foundational relationships that typically last a lifetime. So why is sibling conflict so common, and how do we help resolve it?
It is believed that birth order may play a role in the way siblings interact with one another. Generally speaking, the oldest sibling is a high achiever seeking to prove their value and maintain the caregiver’s attention. Second or middle siblings find themselves highly competitive with the oldest with a high value placed on being seen as unique. Youngest siblings are often given a more lenient childhood experience and may feel entitled to things their siblings had to work for, or be more likely to get into trouble.
Additionally, age gaps and gender differences between siblings have an impact on rivalry – the closer in age the more likely they are to compete. Same-gender siblings are more often in conflict than children of different genders.
There are a lot of different potential factors at play in family dynamics that can lead to sibling rivalry. Single-parent households can lead to more conflict as the children fight for the attention of just one parent. Blended or adopted families present unique challenges to siblings that may have grown up in different homes or with different early childhood experiences.
It’s important to also remember that the dynamic of the caretakers’ relationship plays a huge role in how children learn to solve problems, first with each other and then out in the world. If parents have poor communication skills or if domestic violence is present, they’ll often pass down that behavior to their kids.
Unfortunate family-wide circumstances also inevitably affect sibling relationships. Things like divorce, death, mental health issues, chronic illness, or trauma impact kids deeply and can change the way they relate to one another.
Sibling rivalry is pretty much a normal part of family life and parents should allow the kids to resolve their conflicts on their own whenever it’s possible. Sometimes issues are bigger and require intervention from a therapist who can support each sibling, find resolution, and repair the family dynamic.
Prevent Major Rivalry:
When kids know what to expect from their caregivers, rules are enforced, and consequences are given when required, there is less uncertainty in the home and as a result, less stress.
Set up regular one-on-one time with each of your children so they don’t feel the need to compete for it. This time also allows you to learn whether or not their emotional, physical, and relational needs are met.
Navigate the Rivalry:
In cases of simple arguments between your kids, hold back from stepping in to help resolve right away. This gives them the chance to practice negotiation skills, tooling them to help prevent big blow-outs. When to step in? If name-calling starts or things begin to get aggressive, it’s time for a mediator.
Teaching your kids to take a break from an argument to calm down and think more clearly is a great way to interrupt conflict that has gotten aggressive. Give each child designated time in their own safe space to cool off and bring them back together to resolve things later.
It’s a tough lesson, but it might be beneficial to teach the siblings that equal doesn’t always mean fair. Each child has different needs and sometimes one may need more or different things than the other. Settling disputes so that everyone’s needs are met might require one to get more attention, resources, etc. than the other – it’s all about compromise.
If you feel that your children’s rivalry has gotten beyond your ability to navigate, or larger issues are contributing to their feud, we can help. At Life Insight, we have the resources to provide therapy to the entire family, covering a wide range of issues and age groups. Reach out to us today to get started.
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