Sibling rivalry is natural, even biblical in nature, meaning it has been happening ever since families existed and lived together.
Families with more than one child will, at some stage, have to deal with rivalry, competition, power struggles, envy, jealousy and aggressive or passive aggressive fighting between siblings.
There are many causes that can trigger or create rivalry between siblings. The quality and maturity of parenting in educating children to live happily with others is vital in helping children to learn how to understand and voice their emotional states and to form healthy boundaries and partnerships. Also, it's important to understand that all unresolved issues between parents and primary caregivers will be "worked out" in the family through our children. So if there is mistrust or power struggles with parents, the children will pick up on this and act it out between themselves overtly or covertly. Sibling rivalry really focuses the shadow aspects of our families and that is why it is so rewarding to face, address and resolve.
Birth order and age gap between children can also contribute, for example as a rule rivalry is more intense the narrower the age gap and with same gender children. When one child is particularly gifted that also can create problems with siblings. Other causes are favoritism and making comparisons from parents or other family members or when children fight for attention and compete to demonstrate to parents who's the most special or unique and more worthy of their love .
Rivalry is co-created by favoritism and typecasting of our children that can produce competition, jealousy and envy. For example when we say he's the sporty one in the family or she's the smart or sharp one out of her brothers and sister, this can create a huge emotional charge for the other children. When we make what seems like innocent comments, when heard through a child's sensitive ears of rivalry they can become triggers to spark emotions and insecurities that our children do not know how to express and communicate. It is these emotions and feelings when left unaddressed that turn into rivalry.
Rivalry can take on the form of victim, victimizer, domination, control, humiliation, embarrassment, shaming and blaming, telling tales and sabotaging by omission or commission.
It is important for us as parents to know the difference between healthy constructive debate and unhealthy rivalry. It is important to identify when our children are dealing with natural tensions and differences in learning how to express themselves with others and when to step in to handle unhealthy rivalry that can be very destructive and erode over time the happiness and wellbeing of our children and families .
It is also easy to fall into the trap of taking sides or protecting the underdog or younger child, especially when we witness inequalities of strength, emotional maturity, eloquence of speech or manipulations from our older children. Younger children can also be guilty of all of the above depending on their age and competitive smarts in defending themselves or attacking others.
I have two children, a boy aged 13 years and a girl aged 11 years, so you can imagine I've had to deal with sibling rivalry from the moment my son realized after two weeks of his sister being home that his kingdom had changed. It was telling when at aged two, he started to ask when I was taking her back to the hospital? What is often missed with sibling rivalry is that it's a journey for our children between the extreme emotions of "love and hate!"
I began including my boy in the process of taking care of his sister. He began to enjoy this enormously. He felt more responsible for her, and over time developed an emotional bond with her that would generate good feelings for him and make him feel special at the same time. I also had to learn to create space for each child individually and to acknowledge each child as being different with their own unique qualities and needs. Needless to say, it is still a work in progress with days where we come together as a real team and others where we have to face challenges and work through them. I found it helpful to address issues as they arise rather than let them grow over time into fixed habits that will ultimately take longer and be more difficult to deal with.
I'd like to share with you some of the ways I've worked through the rivalry of my own kids. We take time out to voice differences and to get in touch with the underlying emotions causing fights or difficulties. I ask and teach each child how to identify and give voice to their own feelings talking through their underlying fears and concerns. When all hell breaks loose, as it can from time to time, I remind them that they are both uncomfortable right now and what is going on between them to cause the discomfort and how can we work it out together. I also remind them that it is not all bad and that they see eye to eye and play well together with many things. I take time out to calm intense emotions and then ask each to explain what is not working for them and what they feel needs changing. We then all agree how best to change things or do things differently that will hopefully bring about a different result. Mostly this works as I discovered a lot of rivalry and bickering is over the same things. Usually, my kids do not have the foresight, motivation or willingness to name what the real issue is and unhappily stay stuck complaining or arguing over and over about the same issues which gives them each an excuse not to show up and move on. It's so easy to blame someone else for our troubles, so that over time the sibling becomes the default excuse when things don't go the way they want or expect.
It is very important for parents to take time out and teach their children how to be in touch and give a voice to their emotions. It is also vitally important that if children risk voicing and sharing their emotions and feelings that we do not make them wrong or take sides unfairly.
The big emotions usually at the heart of sibling rivalry are anger, fear, jealousy, envy, hurt and sadness. Most of these emotions are triggered by the fear of our children not getting what they want or fearing losing what they have. Often children without the ability to articulate their feelings, to a parent or primary caregiver, will divert and project their feelings and hurt onto a sibling. It is impossible to deal with children whose flight or fight response has been triggered by a sibling as their biological defense mechanism is in play. Calming children down first may take time, but it will produce better results over time. In dealing with anger, understand a child is trying to protect something he or she feels is at risk and needs protection. With fears, a child is triggered into feeling they need to take some sort of action or say or do something based on what their fearful imagination is telling them. So when a child is angry ask first what or who are they angry at, you may have to push them to go deeper into an answer, and then ask what are they afraid of or are trying to protect or fear losing. Ask them to describe what their fearful imagination is telling them will happen.
Parents must make time and care to build trust with each child so they learn to trust opening up to their parents with their true feelings and emotional moods. If this doesn't happen children will learn to repress their emotions only for them to build up inside our child to explode later with greater intensity and less parental control and influence.
Jealousy and envy are also strong emotions involved with sibling rivalry. These emotions are intense as they usually have anger fears and sadness at the heart. As these are considered by most negative emotions, they are not easy to talk about and our children can even feel a sense of shame for having them. Again it pays well to sit down with each child as I say "off line," that is not when they are fighting with each other or in a bad mood and talk through their emotions, not making them right or wrong, but trying to understand what lies at the root of a child's emotional behavior and moods. Usually, I find with my kids that they either need recognition and acknowledgement over their own achievements, perceive something is unfair or unjust or they mistakenly believe that there is not enough love to go around.
In dealing with sibling rivalry it's best to address it as it arises over time and not allow things to fester and build up. This will take an investment of your time and it is painful to deal with issues regarding our children whom we love dearly. But as I remind myself and our children, "do we want short term pain and long term gain" in addressing rivalry as it arises or "short term gain and long term pain" in avoiding dealing with sibling rivalry and passively tolerating and putting up with it day in day out?
I've witnessed with my own children the benefits that come from working together to solve issues arising from rivalry. Like all of life's best lessons if we face our challenges together as a family we can only grow from them and the same is true when we dealing with sibling rivalry.