Expert View: Dealing with Sibling Rivalry

The school summer holidays are now in full swing and whilst many families will be enjoying the slower pace of life without routines and homework, others will see an increase in sibling rivalry and fighting... 
Expert View: Dealing with Sibling Rivalry
By Jenny Mollon
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School holidays are often fondly remembered by children, but for parents managing intense sibling rivalry, they can be a stressful and difficult time. talks to psychologist and parenting specialist, Dr Sara Rasmi of the Dr Sara Rasmi Wellness Centre in Jumeirah Lake Towers, to get her expert advice on how to deal with this common parenting challenge. 

Dr Sara, you often work with families and parents.  Can you help us understand what sibling rivalry is, as opposed to just ‘fighting’?

Conflict and fighting is not necessarily a bad thing – it’s our way of telling people that there is something going on that we are not happy with.  Of course, there are ways to deal conflict that are more effective than others! Some adults and children can manage conflict more effectively than others.  This is something we all experience in our relationships as we go through life.

Rivalry is something more ongoing than just a fight.  Between two siblings, it often stems from the fact that one child (or both) think that the other child is the preferred child. As a result, this effects the way that they interact with each other. 

How does age difference impact upon sibling rivalry?  Does personality matter here?

Age difference will definitely be a factor, but personality comes it to it too.  As we have said, some people just handle conflict and rivalry better than others. 

As adults, we can reflect on the changes to our own sibling relationships as we grow older.  With age comes a more level playing field with our siblings and this impacts upon how we deal with conflict.  I would say it is definitely a combination of both age and personality traits.

What is your advice for parents whose children are in a constant cycle or rivalry and fighting?

I would advise that parents look at their own reactions to their children’s fighting first. 

We all need a lot of patience to be the nurturing and kind parent that we all want to be.  Dealing with rivalry on a daily basis is depleting and uncomfortable.

So first of all, with this and with any other challenge we face with our kids, I recommend that we do something for ourselves, some quiet time that is just for your alone, even it is just five minutes per day.  This can be anything at all – my version is when I get home from work, I just don’t get out of the car right away!  I just sit for a few minutes before I enter the house.  I need that moment of calm.  I’m sure my neighbours are really confused, the car is off, there’s no radio – just me sitting there staring off into space!

I think that is one of the first things we need to do – really look our after ourselves.

Next, before any individual moment of rivalry, I advise that we really instil in our kids what our family values are.  When parents first come to me I challenge them to sit together and generate a few core, central values for their family. 

Most of the time people include things like kindness, but if can be anything that is meaningful to you.  A key phrase then becomes ‘we don’t do that in our family – we are kind’.  Defining values as well as house rules is so important and is key to getting to the root of negative behaviour.  

We must remember that the work is not just in the moment of the conflict.  It comes way before that. Then when conflict happens, we can label the behaviour and describe how it transgresses the values of our family. 

What about for very young children?  How do we intervene in conflict when they don’t understand concepts such as ‘values’?

The first thing is that you still name the behaviour and talk about values a lot because, as abstract as it might seem to begin with, you are slowly, slowly helping this to sink in.  It takes time!  Children will internalise the message for when they are older.

In the difficult moments though, I recommend you try to let the siblings deal with it!  Especially if it is a relatively small conflict that is not a massive transgression of your values. 

They need to learn to work this out and the whole family will benefit in the long term.  Of course, if health or safety is compromised, you need to separate them, but otherwise try and let it play out.  Siblings will need these strategies repeatedly over the years!  Today the argument is over a toy, later it might be over something much bigger.  Siblings will always have reason for conflict, so I would say let them have a go at working it out. 

If you find that one child is instigating or exacerbating the conflict, even if they are very young, I would say use that as a moment to connect their behaviour to the value that they have transgressed.  Get down to their eye level, maybe incorporate some touch if they generally respond well to touch and say;

‘I know that you are feeling angry, however, we don’t hit.  Hitting is not nice.  In our family we don’t hit.  We are kind’. 

So again, you name the feeling and link it to the transgressed value.  Naming emotions helps children to feel in control and understand their own explosive feelings.  This also allows you to demonstrate that you understand and empathise with them.

Why does children’s behaviour differ so much between home and school or nursery? Why do these conflicts occur more at home than in the school playground?

However much our child likes their school or nursery, they still aren’t as comfortable as they are at home.  We all show our worst side at home and with the people we love the most - that is we are able to show our frustrations!

Should we move away from ‘Time Out’?  What alternative strategies should we use?

When you reflect on your children, try to identify the triggers for the negative behaviour.  If you know what makes things escalate, you can work on stopping the behaviour before it even starts. 

When things get elevated – try to figure out what it was that caused it – hunger, tiredness; does it happen at particular times of day or weekend vs weekdays?  Once you know the pattern you can try to prevent the behaviour before it starts, rather than intervene.  Prevention is the best course of action.

Can you give parents reading this two final top tips for managing sibling rivalry?

First, reflect on your own behaviour.  When I say that, I don’t mean holding yourself to extreme standards, there really is no such thing as a perfect parent.  Or even a perfect day!  We are not perfect and neither are our kids. 

If we find that we lost our temper or handled things in a way that we are not super proud of, we need to sit back and reflect upon what we could have done differently.

Lastly, one of the best ways to prevent this kind of conflict is to make sure that all our children get quality time with you, one on one. 

A lot of the time parents feel guilty about time and about fitting everything and everyone in, but the research shows that it is really nothing to do with the quantity of time we spend with our kids, it’s the quality of the time.  Even if it’s just ten or 15 minutes a day, if you can have that one on one time with each of your children, it helps so much. 

Try and plan your family time so that you can switch around with your partner and children get that special one on one time with both parents. was talking to Dr Sara Rasmi, licensed psychologist and Managing Director of the Dr. Sarah Rasmi Wellness Centre.

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