Parents often worry that they did something wrong that caused or encouraged sibling rivalry. But sibling rivalry is not a sign of failed parenting efforts. In this quick tip episode, we explain sibling rivalry in terms of evolution and give parents ways to decrease sibling arguments.
According to Jeanine Vivona, a professor of psychology at the College of New Jersey who has studied sibling rivalry, “competition with siblings is just a fact of life. And we, as people with siblings and people with children, can just try to manage it as best we can.”
Other research has found sibling rivalry to be beneficial to development. Psychologically, sibling rivalry serves a developmental purpose: It helps children figure out what is unique and special about themselves. This is known as “differentiation.” Children want to be seen as special by their parents, so they push for preferential treatment over their siblings. But they may also shape their interests and personalities around their siblings’ skills and desires.
For example, say you have an older son who is a soccer star. The younger child may avoid soccer altogether, either because they are afraid they won’t be as good or because they fear they might be better. This is the differentiation between their activities. Or perhaps they both end up on the soccer team, but the older one is the hard worker, and the younger one tries to establish himself as the team jester. This is differentiation within the same activity.
Although sibling rivalry is evolutionary and not solely a result of parenting, there are things parents do that condone the behavior. The more parents get involved with sibling fighting the more kids start to feel anger towards the sibling and their parent, which makes the situation worse. Action parents should look for in their own behavior is whether they are unknowingly creating a bully versus victim scenario.
This plays out when the parent swoops in to protect one child, enabling them to be the victim. By quickly judging the other child’s actions, the parent makes him out to be a bully. The more parents unknowingly project these views onto their kids, the more you’re set up to become a self-fulfilling prophecy for those roles. This is exactly where a child may start to feel like they can’t do anything right. Or that they can’t trust their parent to recognize that they weren’t the bully or were trying to make the situation right.
Here are three suggestions for reducing sibling conflict.
One way to mitigate conflict is referred to as sportscasting. The easiest way to help siblings get along is to sportscast exactly what you see at the moment using observations free from judgment, questions, teaching, or fixing. As we see with sports on TV, explaining what happened on each side that lead to the situation, brings clarity and understanding to both sides. This helps kids feel heard and understood and allows you to parent with a lot more information.
Praise them in public and punish them in private.
If your kids are being kind to each other, praise really loudly all over the place. For example, you may say, “I love that you let your sister go first!” But if you’re criticizing them, try to do it outside of the other child’s earshot, because they may use it to against them. For example, this would be one child starting a conflict with the other by saying “mom said you can’t jump on the couch!”
Try to find moments where everyone can come together. Your kids’ temperaments and personalities may be similar, or they may not. The goal here is to try to find common activities that allow everyone to be flexible, and to feel connected. One example may be family game night. Although it may take a long time to agree on which movie to watch, that arguing is rivalry you’re going to experience. But in the end, you all sit together and keep each other company, while your kids are learning valuable skills, like a compromise.
Mark Feinberg, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University, says “Early and middle childhood are particularly difficult times for sibling aggression.” But, “conflict does decrease into adolescence” and levels off. They may even become best friends in the future, even if they don’t believe it now.
Vivona, J. M. (2007). Sibling Differentiation, Identity Development, and the Lateral Dimension of Psychic Life. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 55(4), 1191–1215. https://doi.org/10.1177/000306510705500405