If you have more than one child, you are probably fairly familiar with sibling squabbles. If one child has a toy, no doubt the other one wants it. It’s especially hard with smaller children; the youngest instantly craves what the older sibling possesses, no matter how big or small. So what do you do when they start to make fun and call each other names? How do you handle the oh-so-common fights over who gets the red, yellow, or pink crayon—the one that isn’t broken yet? How do you deal if one child thinks the other got a better fire truck or a prettier princess dress?
Let’s take four common scenarios one at a time and look at some options for diffusing sibling rivalry.
Your three-year-old and your five-year-old are fighting over a toy. It may not even be a favorite, but the second the younger child takes it, the older one simply must have it.
- Begin by calmly asking each one to please stop their bad behavior.
- If they don’t obey, it’s time to begin a more specific strategy. Try saying, “You normally listen to me because you’re such a good listener.” Or “I’m surprised. I can usually count on you to do as I ask.” The idea is to appeal to the positive rather than scolding them for the negative. Kids tend to do what they believe you expect of them. If you focus on what they’re doing wrong, they’ll continue to do it. But if you focus on the good actions you want them to do, they’re much more likely to surprise you with positive behavior.
- Tell them, “From now on—if you don’t share your toys this time, you won’t be able to play with them the next time.” The key is to emphasize “from now on” because it causes them to think about future consequences of their behavior. You can’t win every battle in the moment, but one of the goals of parenting is to teach kids to make better decisions in the future. However, you must remember to follow through or your children will learn that your words don’t count.
A couple of weeks after you bring your new baby home from the hospital, your older child begins to show signs of jealousy. He begins to regress, asking for a bottle, wanting to be held constantly, slapping or biting the baby on occasion.
- Carve out some extra time to spend with the older child. His world has been rocked and he’s feeling slightly knocked off center stage. He misses the attention he used to get and he’s identified the cause of his deficit. Tell him how special he is to you, how much you love him and how happy you are that he is so grown up.
- Enlist him to help with some of the baby tasks. He can get the diapers and the wipes. He can cover the baby with a blanket or hold his feet while you breast feed—any job that makes him feel useful, valuable and part of the family. Tell him how glad you are that he is able to help out.
- Your baby has probably received gifts, so be sure you have a few small presents now and then for your older child so that he doesn’t feel left out.
Your older child gets a shiny new bike and your younger child gets the hand-me-down. The older child may rub it in and the younger may kick the bike or even her older sibling.
- At the same time the new bike arrives, re-paint and decorate the older one. Adorn it with a basket, a bell, colorful stickers and everything special to your younger child.
- Take some private time with your older child and talk with her about how to be sensitive to her sister. Ask her how she would feel if the tables were turned because one day someone else will get something that she would like. This is an opportunity to share with her the importance of being tender with other people’s feelings.
- Take some private time with your younger child. If she is still upset, ask her what she likes more about her bike. Focus on that. And then get on with the excitement of riding with her.
One child gets invited to a party. The other does not. The one who doesn’t starts being mean to the one who does.
- In an age appropriate way talk with both children about the fact that there are things in life that are both disappointing and heartbreaking. These kinds of things just happen in life, and at different times they happen to everyone.
- Reinforce your family value of supporting each other in a painful time—being understanding, compassionate and caring. “We are a family that celebrates each other’s good fortune and successes and gives encouragement and hugs for the bad times and defeats.”
- Give an example of a time when you were left out or felt rejected so your child doesn’t feel he’s the only one.
- Acknowledge his feelings, listen attentively and continue to encourage him to share them with you.
When kids are young, it’s easier to solve these sibling rivalries. But when they get older, the issues get more complicated and there isn’t a simple solution for each incident. That’s why it’s important to prepare your family and your kids in advance. Teach them when they’re young and before the situation arises so they have already learned to support each other instead of making fun of each other. Then when something comes up, it becomes another opportunity to reinforce caring, compassion and learning to deal with failure, disappointment and delayed gratification.