Written by: Cassie McKenzie
One minute, your children are playing basketball and are competing to see who can get the most points. The next minute, they are yelling about who gets to toss the basketball in first. By the time you get close to them, they are crying and refusing to play with each other.
As youth reach different stages of development, their individualized needs can significantly impact how they connect with each other. Sibling rivalry is characterized by jealousy and aggression between brothers and sisters, which can be a frustrating experience for everyone involved.
Some sibling rivalry is natural – competition does not have to be a bad thing! In some cases, rivalry may encourage siblings to improve their skills or refine their hobbies. In other instances where siblings are engaging with each other aggressively, such as verbally or physically fighting, it may be a good idea for adults to intervene.
Why Does Sibling Rivalry Occur?
• Need for Stimulation and Experience
Like all behavior, sibling rivalry is often driven by children’s feelings and needs. Perhaps children are bored and in need of something to do, or perhaps they feel as if another sibling is getting a different experience than they are. Every child will describe their needs and preferences in different ways, and this type of communication can be particularly difficult for children with diverse communication styles. This perceived disconnect between experiencing and expressing emotions may lead to frustration and anger for both siblings, otherwise known as the double empathy problem. Being aware of the double empathy problem can offer parents and children context about the dynamics of social interactions.
• Need for Power and Validation
Engaging in conflicts with others is a lifelong experience. Learning to manage conflict respectfully is a learned skill. It is possible that siblings engage in competitive behavior to achieve more independence and increase their interpersonal competency. Sibling rivalry may help children understand how to navigate disputes with others.
• Need for Differentiation
Every child is working to identify the likes and talents that make them unique, and sometimes this process is complicated by siblings. All of us are unique but learning this may not come naturally for children who grow up with siblings. This means that interests and hobbies for a younger sibling may mimic that of an older sibling, which may lead to competitive behavior.
How Can Sibling Rivalry Be Mitigated?
• Setting Boundaries
Communicating boundaries with children lets them know what is expected of them. Boundaries in the context of sibling rivalry may be having your children ask before taking their sibling’s toys, or perhaps having a set time that each child gets to play with a specific toy. When children meet expectations, parents and adults may consider rewarding the productive and desired behavior. Group Contingency is a behavior management tool that can be utilized interdependently and can help parents foster a culture of respect between siblings.
• Turn Taking
Practicing turn taking can encourage siblings to engage in prosocial behavior. Taking turns amongst siblings can also translate to taking turns with peers at school, or in other settings. Many children want to go first, and finish first. Taking turns can give siblings the opportunity to practice the social skills necessary to learn how to lose gracefully, exchange power appropriately, and respect the needs of others.
• Calming Conflict Collaboratively
For adults, it can be difficult to stay calm and neutral while coming into a situation where children are upset with each other. Perhaps there is a perceived slight, or potential situations where conflict is likely to occur. Using empathetic statements, or “I feel” statements, can encourage children to speak about their emotions, which may help everyone come to a better understanding. Adults can encourage “I feel” statements by asking each child, “Why do you think fighting is happening?”, which gives each child the opportunity to discuss what they perceive to be a fact. Adults may also encourage children to identify their own solutions to sibling rivalry, as children are more likely to utilize the solution if it was their idea.
Additional resources for managing sibling rivalry:
Parenting Your Children Through Sibling Rivalry
Sibling Rivalry by Autism, Advocacy, and Intervention