Sibling rivalry is often caused by brothers and sisters fighting for the attention of their parents. The typical onset of sibling rivalry is shortly after the birth of the second child. The oldest child may have difficulty understanding that the parents must now divide their attention amongst several children, resulting in jealousy and difficulty adjusting to the new sibling. Sibling rivalry may appear different during various stages of development. Additionally, if one child has special needs for medical or developmental purposes, it may be difficult for siblings to understand why that child requires additional attention.

Children have different temperaments. Therefore, it is important to individualize the needs of each child. This may be difficult for children to understand, especially when siblings are at different ages. For example, a teenage child may be able to stay up later at night than a school-aged child.

Although sibling rivalry is a common experience in homes with multiple children, there are also benefits to having siblings. Children with siblings learn social skills like sharing, have another child available to play with, and learn how to appropriately interact with others.

Here are some suggestions on how to foster positive relationships between siblings:

• Model appropriate behavior. Show your children how to appropriately resolve conflict. Children learn how to interact with others by what is modeled for them. If you respond to conflict by using respectful solutions, your children are more likely to respond respectfully to conflicts in their own lives.

• Encourage your children to learn to resolve conflicts on their own. However, you should intervene if you have safety concerns or if you notice that your children need to calm down in order to successfully resolve the conflict.

• Teach your children how to compromise.

• Set aside time for one-on-one attention. Show your children that you appreciate their individual interests.

• Encourage sharing of toys that are appropriate for all children in the home. In young children, it may be helpful to set a timer to indicate how long each child gets with a particular item. For example, if sisters fight over playing with a doll, set a timer for 5 minutes while one child plays with the doll. When the timer goes off, the second child gets to play with the doll for 5 minutes. If the children have a significant amount of difficulty sharing an item, you may consider taking the item away for the time being and allowing them to try again at a later date.

• Allow children to have their own space. It can be overwhelming for children to be around their siblings for long periods of time. Allow for your children to go to an area when they can do their own thing and explore their own interests.

• Encourage positive family interactions. Spend time together as a family. This can include eating together, watching movies together, or going out for a family outing. This shows children how to appropriately act with one another.

• Set common goals. Encouraging children to work together toward a goal that all the children will enjoy is a great way to build teamwork. For example, if the siblings are able to play a game together well, they may be rewarded with a family outing or dessert.

• If the rivalry is so severe that it affects daily living or the psychological wellbeing of any family member, seek professional help.

How have you handled sibling rivalry with your children?

Kimberly O’Brien is a Licensed Professional Counselor working in the Behavior Clinic at Penfield Children’s Center.  She has years of experience in family counseling and specializes in working with children 5-years-old and under with significant behavior and emotional concerns. At the Behavior Clinic, she focuses on the family unit by working together to reduce challenging behaviors, increase prosocial behaviors, and strengthen family relationships.

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