Sibling Rivalry, what’s good about it , when to interfere, and how to go about it.

14 Nov

I hate you!
I hate you too!

Some of us get to witness interactions similar to the one above way too  often. Indeed, sibling rivalry seems to be the eternal conflict at the very heart of all human relationships. Cain’s feelings for Abel were not very tender, and Jacob and Esau were not best friends either.  Even for  non-believers those biblical stories should show  that those types of conflict are archetypal and ubiquitous, and people have been dealing with them, well, since the biblical times.  What do we learn from the longevity of this conflict? That there must be something good about it! People have been doing it for so long, there must be a reason, a learning opportunity, some kind of benefit hidden in this seemingly unpleasant experience.

What is good about it?

Many wise people pointed out that childhood is a preparation for adult life. Indeed, children go to school to learn academic and social skills necessary to function in the real world, in which they will have to live, once they grow up and leave the protection of parental home.  Conflict resolution is the essential skill children have to learn.  Of course, there is no resolution without  conflict! Sometimes, you might feel that your little ones create conflicts out of nothing, they fight just to fight. And they do! They practice conflicting and fighting in the safest environment possible — their own home. They trust each other to fight excitedly but not to hurt each other too badly. They scream and cry, but in ten minutes they play together again and in 20 minutes they fight again! Do they enjoy it? They do! Children play different social roes and they practice different types of interactions. They need to practice playing an adversary just as much as they need to practice friendship! The beauty with fighting your own brother is that no conflict is final. After all, you are all going to have  a family dinner in an hour! Therefore, in a funny way, fighting strengthens their connection just as much as does peaceful playing.  As long as fights alternate with friendly playing and you see mutual affection among your kids, those conflicts are a normal part of growing up, of testing the limits and practicing different types of interactions.

When to interfere?

Of course, Adam should have taught Cain better!  Obviously, you absolutely must interfere, when you see that one of the children is being consistently hurt, when abusive words are being used or when children cannot restrain themselves from physical violence. You also should interfere when children fight to get your attention. In other words, their fight is no longer about them. It’s about you.

How do you interfere?

Avoid being a judge. In the mist of the chaos, when you have to stop violence, avoid jumping at any conclusion and assigning any blame. Things may not be what they seem. The situation didn’t start at the very moment you decided to interfere, most likely you skipped the beginning, as well as the middle, and it is counterproductive to look for the guilty party. Instead, just tell them firmly, that they must stop right now. At this very moment.Take them apart. Send them into different rooms. Give each of them a glass of water.  Help them slow down and think carefully of what just happened. And then,  make them feel loved. Without going into details, tell each child individually that you love her very much. That she is your joy. That you know she didn’t mean those words. She simply didn’t think it through. Next time she will think before talking (or using her hands). That’s all that’s necessary to stop the situation. Then move on. Have a family dinner, read a book to both of them. Take them outside. Let them know it is not the end of the world, and don’t turn it into something bigger than it needs to be.

Yes, it works in the moment, but then it happens again. And again. And again.

If your children repeatedly use violence you need to look carefully at the “guilty party”.

Mommy, Jonathan just hit me!
Jonathan! No ice-cream for you tonight!

What  just happened? If Jonathan hit his little brother because he thinks you like his younger sibling more than him, you just confirmed his mistaken belief! Remember Cain and Abel? It is indeed damaging and hurtful to doubt parental love, or feel that you are the least favorite child in the family. Remember and old saying that your child needs your love the most, when she deserves it the least?  It’s true about sibling relationship just as much as it is true about everything else.  There are two kids hurting for different reasons. And one of them seems to be undeserving of your love. And she REALLY needs it. In fact, she begs for it.  How about you avoid assigning blame, and, as you always do, provide your kid with what she needs the most at the moment!

How about his response:

Mommy, Jacob hit me!

Oh, honey, I’m sure he didn’t really mean it.  How about I kiss you where it hurts? Now, how about I kiss Jacob where it hurts him.

No, he meant it! He said he doesn’t want me to be his brother! He said he will do it again!

You know, that means he is tired, and needs to spend sometime alone. Sometimes, when you are REALLY tired, you say things you don’t REALLY mean. I’m sure you know that, right? I know you are upset he said it. But let’s give him sometime alone, and let’s see what he says after he rests.

Notice, that you are being loving toward the “guilty child”. You even try to defend him, but you do NOT approve of his actions.  The actions/words were inappropriate. They should not be used, and the only excuse is that they were not meant for real.

Should you demand that the “guilty party” apologize?

No. You should not. An apology is meaningful only if it is sincere. A coerced apology devalues the concept and breeds mistrust.

Should your help your “guilty child” to arrive at sincere apology and warmer feelings toward his little sibling?


How you do that?

Let your “guilty child” talk. Let’s say your 13 year old daughter  constantly yells at her 10 year old sister. You know why she does it? Because the sister is always on her nerves. Always. Acknowledge your “guilty” child’s feelings.  Invite her to talk to you.  When the two of you are alone, tell her:

I know it is difficult for you to get along with you sister. I know you feel annoyed and irritated. I’m so sorry she makes you feel this way.

Your child will feel relieved that her feelings are known and it’s okay to feel that way. She is still loved. After that inviting phrase let her talk. Let her tell you everything about how she thinks. Everything about those occasions when the younger one was teasing her or squeal on her. Everything about those occasions when you kissed the little one, but didn’t kiss the older one. Everything about the special birthday present she had, etc. etc. It might seem unfair to you. After all, you are treating them equally. You love your eldest to death! But drop your defenses for a moment, and just let your child talk.  After she finishes just tell her

I’m so sorry you feel this way. I love you very much. I will think about how to make things easier for you.

That’s all you have to say. This simple act of empathy, humanity and compassion is very likely to do miracles. Your “guilty” child will know that you know his feelings and still love him. You don’t think he is “guilty”, you appreciate how difficult it is for him.  You empathize. You still like him!  Your response will fill your child’s heart with warmth that more often than not will get transferred to his sibling.

I’ve seen it happening many times, once the blame is removed and the feelings are validated, the child that’s been ALWAYS starting the fight realizes that there is nothing to fight for.


2 Responses to “Sibling Rivalry, what’s good about it , when to interfere, and how to go about it.”

  1. Laura December 9, 2013 at 1:20 am #

    Great article – thank you. But …. I’m not clear if your advice is to essentially leave the siblings alone (after you empathize and explain, etc);

    • Dr. Eugenia Steingold September 22, 2016 at 6:06 pm #

      Laura, your comment was somehow stuck in my spam folder and I just discovered and approved it.
      First of all, you wrote it a long time ago, and I hope your kids flourishing, doing well, and enjoying a healthy amount of sibling rivalry, with a healthy competition and no hurt feelings.
      Secondly, please, do not underestimate the power of empathy. It is something we all need, kids and adults alike, it’s a universal human desire to be heard and seen.
      Essentially, you nailed it. Most of all your kids need to know that they are heard and seen by you. Often, that is the main cause of rivalry (to ensure that they are heard and seen). Often, giving each of them some one-on-one time and acknowledging that the other one could be difficult to deal with is all they need to start feeling better about themselves and their siblings.
      In addition, I would add that the oldest is often suffering the most. To help him/her out, try to build up her authority in front of the youngest by giving her compliments and emphasizing her strength and ability to help the younger. Being built up in front of the younger child is often all that is needed for the older to start liking her sibling again. After all, her younger sibling has just been a witness of her success, because the Mom just praised her in front of the younger one! Who wouldn’t want to be friends with the witnesses of their successes? Don’t worry about hurting your younger child’s feelings at the moment. She will get the attention and affection of her older sister/brother, and that is what she has been craving for all this time.

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