One minute they are fighting like cats and dogs, the next they are the best of friends- squabbling siblings can put a crack in the happy family picture, turning parents into referees and family time into competitive chaos and causing divisive disputes. So, what to do? While sibling rivalry is all part of the natural process of growing up, adults can help smooth the way for their kids and create a harmonious environment in which each child can develop.

Why sibling rivalry is normal and healthy

As kids grow up they are in a perpetual state of working out who they are, what their standing in the world is, and how to grapple with complex feelings and emotions. The family, as a microcosm of the world-at-large, is the arena in which children define themselves as individuals. Often, sibling rivalry can be at its most potent in pre-teens and between kids who do not have a big age difference. It can be a healthy way for youngsters to explore the uncharted landscape of their own self-discovery.

So, what’s the problem with sibling rivalry?

In essence, conflict, whatever the root cause, can be stressful, creating a snowball effect where arguments lead to further battles and so on. When sibling rivalry gets out of hand this can create conflict that permeates all family dynamics, even that of the parental relationship. Sibling disagreements could also be related to other issues which need to be addressed, such as anxiety and depression in one child. Aside from the threat of physical harm, which can be a real concern for parents, constant fights can affect the emotional and psychological well-being of individuals within the family.

10 ways to manage sibling rivalry

Parents might accept that sibling rivalry does occur and is normal to some extent, but that does not mean there is no need to manage it and generate some positive support and input. Here are 10 tips to help:

  1. Don’t intervene – Of course if arguments are spilling into physical aggression you must step in, but managing sibling rivalry is not about wading into the fray. Often the source of the conflict is jealousy and vying for your attention. You do not want to come across as if you are judge and jury and side with one child over the other; neither do you want to constantly be expected to take control of problem solving.
  2. Show-and-tell conflict resolution – Children do as they see, so what are you teaching them about how to behave when there is a conflict in your relationships? How do you handle problems and reach resolutions? You need to show and tell kids that the best way to solve problems is through negotiation and sometimes though compromise.
  3. Give kids one-on-one attention – It can be tempting for busy parents to mentally and physically slot time with the kids together into one group. However, focusing on each child as an individual is important so that they not only feel valued but also are encouraged to express their sense of individuality and feel cherished. Reinforce the special qualities they have and what makes them unique. Spending time with children alone can also create a good space to discuss issues that might be bothering them.
  4. Create engaging, fun family time – Sibling rivalry can no doubt deter you from getting the family together for some relaxed leisure time, but persevere. Positive experiences as a family can help ease tensions between youngsters and create a sense of balance. You can also add onto this family meetings so kids have a forum in which they can air their grievances.
  5. Reduce stress in your own life – As well as copying how you deal with problems, kids pick up on stress within the family. Are you demonstrating anxious behavior or does your patience run out far too quickly? How is this impacting your children? Sibling rivalry can increase when there is a general undercurrent of stress running through a family dynamic. Look after your own needs too.
  6. Understand different children’s different needs – Your policy might be to rule with fairness and expect the same responses and behavior from each individual child. The fact is though, that kids have different temperaments and different needs; a child who has a physical or psychological issue may need more attention, for example. Don’t take sides or compare, and realize that aiming for fairness could lead you to miss important differences in your children which need to be acknowledged.
  7. Resolve arguments between kids with the kids – Petty squabbles can go on and on, so it is tempting for the adult to come to the rescue with some pretty sophisticated and final resolutions. Sibling rivalry is actually a way in which kids are acting out to learn how to interact, confidently assert themselves, and make sense of the confusion of relationships. If you do have to intervene, it is best to discuss with children how to find a happy outcome, rather than having the final say yourself. If a child feels angry then let them feel angry, but teach them how to deal with intense emotions.
  8. Don’t play the blame game – You’ve been watching from the sidelines so you know exactly what’s going on and who is to blame, right? Pointing the finger may feel like the fair and just response, but it can actually just exacerbate the problem and increase the fervour of sibling rivalry as children play off each other to get the other one in trouble. Instead, create a win-win situation for both, so that the focus is shifted away from the problem at hand to a more positive outcome. For example, if kids are arguing over a computer game, why not instigate a game outdoors they can play together.
  9. Set ground rules as a team – Understanding that behavior brings with it consequences is an important life lesson for children and adults alike. Instead of simply laying down the law, letting kids get involved with what is acceptable and what is not is a great way to boost their decision-making abilities. Letting children experience a sense of control over how they behave can work wonders at reducing obstinate, difficult and rebellious reactions.
  10. Kids need space – When your own arguments get a little heated you probably need a little time out, and so do kids. Separating siblings is often the best, most immediate way to cool down the atmosphere and create that break in the battle so that the situation does not get worse and tempers and upsets have a chance to quell.

Sibling rivalry can be as confusing to adults as to kids, but the important point to always keep in mind is that your role is to manage this dynamic, sometimes divert the flow of feelings, and teach life skills on an emotional level. The lesson inevitably starts with yourself.