Managing sibling rivalry

Sibling rivalry is a common phenomenon, and child psychologist Dr Manjit Sidhu talks about how parents can tackle it

Ritika Dhaliwal

Kalpana, a mother of two kids was tired of breaking up fights between her children. Kalpana's 9-year-old daughter Neha would constantly fight with her 3-year-old younger brother and sometimes even beat him when the parents were not around. She had threatened to leave the house and had also acted upon her threat twice, because she felt her parents treated her unfairly ever since the time her brother was born. Neha had extreme feelings of resentment and envy towards the younger brother; these often showed up as conduct and discipline problems. She refused to obey teachers at school and got into fights with her classmates.

Kalpana was very frustrated, and would end up taking out her anger at the kids. She would pray every night for a day where in the kids would be friendly with each other and she could spend a day at peace.

Sibling rivalry often includes negative emotions like envy, jealousy or resentment that lead to fights, arguments and competition for attention and power. Although it might be of varying intensities in different families, sibling rivalry is a common phenomenon and is not very pleasant or easy to deal with. Dr Manjit Sidhu, a child psychologist, spoke to us about what parents can do to manage these situations at home. 

Prepare the older child:Before the birth of the younger child, prepare the older one for the arrival. Let them know that things might not be the same as the younger child will need more care and attention, and that you will try your best to compensate for the time spent away from the older child. Make the older child feel important and involve them in taking care of the baby before birth. Make them read to the unborn child, take their suggestions while buying clothes and toys for the baby. This will make them feel responsible and acquainted with the baby even before the arrival.

Raise sensitive siblings:After the birth of the child too, involve the elder sibling in taking care of the younger one as much as possible. However, do not load them with responsibilities as that might lead them to feel guilty if something goes wrong or even lead them to think that they are your helpers. Some common situations that encourage bonding between siblings are:

  • Sibling as a teacher: encourage the elder child to teach the younger one a skill that they are proficient in. This might be a game,  a sport or even reciting the alphabet and rhymes.
  • Siblings as co-workers: Assign the children little everyday tasks that they perform together. Inculcate in them the notion of teamwork and teach them how work can be done quickly if both do it together.
  • Siblings as entertainers: Encourage the older child to entertain the younger one by singing to them or humouring them.

Give each sibling their own space:As much as possible, try to give each of the siblings their own space. If two separate rooms are not feasible, organize their rooms in such a way that each sibling has ownership of their belongings. Lay down some rules which teach them respect for the others’ possessions. These can be simple rules for example, 'Ask before taking' or 'Clean up your own stuff after play'. This will teach them how to respect others’ personal space no matter how close they are.

Spend some alone time with each child:Try to spend some time alone with each child. This may demand extra time from your daily schedule, but is important in making them feel special and gain undivided attention. 

Compensate for attention:Soon after the birth of the younger child, involve the older child more with the father and the grandparents so that they do not feel neglected. Although they might feel that they are not getting as much time and attention from the mother, it is still compensated for by the father and the grandparents. 

Avoid making comparisons:Each child is unique and reaches developmental milestones at their own pace. Each child should be given their own goals and the levels of expectations should be related to them. Do not make statements like, “When Rohit was his age, he could tie his own shoes.” This makes the child feel inadequate and can have a long lasting impact on the child's self-confidence. Avoid taking sides in arguments at all times.

Do not supress a child’s resentment and anger:Acknowledge and talk about the child’s anger and resentment. This will give you an idea of the reasons why the child feels negative. Talking through it will prevent the emotions from turning into passive aggression and manipulation.

Avoid situations that promote guilt: Teach the kids that feelings and actions are not synonymous.Tell them that feeling angry is okay but acting on it is not. Quick parental intervention is required in such situations where there is a risk of the child acting out. This will not only harm the younger sibling but also cause a lot of guilt in the elder one. Guilt of doing something mean is much worse than the guilt of merely feeling mean.

Let them settle their own matters:Whenever possible, let them settle their own matters on their own. But mediate in competitions of unequal strength. If one is stronger than the other, they might always win the argument.

Discipline in private:Discipline the child in private and not in front of the other sibling as this might lead them to feel humiliated and embarrassed. The other child may also make fun which might worsen the feelings.

Do not ignore appropriate behaviour:Appreciate and acknowledge appropriate behaviour as it acts like a reinforcement and the children are more likely to repeat the same.

Introduce a family plan:Introduce a family plan to help with the situation which has both negative and positive consequences. If they are found fighting, cut down privileges like watching TV for the weekend. Introduce privileges when they do not fight. 

Develop a system for distribution of privileges:According to the family dynamics, introduce a system of distributing privileges wisely and fairly. These privileges may range from who gets to sit in the front seat of the car to choosing the TV show for the evening and even pushing elevator buttons.